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Norman Rockwell was not a realist. You aren’t supposed to interpret his paintings as depictions of everyday America as it actually was. No one who lived during his lifetime considered America a hunky-dory paradise populated only by upstanding and friendly citizens. The America he painted was one we wanted, the one we strove for, America as promised by our founding ideals. He focused on the best parts of our country. His artwork is aspirational, not delusional; optimistic, not whitewashed.
Never was this more explicit than in “Four Freedoms” (pictured to the right), his most enduring series of paintings. The series was inspired by former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address, which began, “In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.” While such idealism typified Rockwell’s work, he also explored darker subjects. Created for Look magazine, “The Problem We All Live With” (pictured below) depicts Ruby Bridges’ walk to William Frantz Elementary School after it was desegregated. Four deputy U.S. marshals escort her, their heads cropped out, their stances stiff and near mirror images of one another. They stand like pillars at either end of the picture, framing the real subject, little Ruby walking upright, unfazed by the racially intimidating graffiti on the wall beside her. It is a picture about defiance. It is a celebration of progress.
Without spearheading a new art movement, without leading a tragic or unsavory life, without courting controversy, Rockwell entered the exclusive club of artists like Pablo Picasso, Leonardo da Vinci, and Vincent Van Gogh, who can be named by people otherwise unfamiliar with (and uninterested in) the world of art. His style is recognizable even among other artists of traditional, representational artwork from mid-20th century America. His style was not innovative and certainly not avant garde, but it is distinct and the subject matter so quaint and good-humored you can’t be faulted for overlooking his extraordinary technical skills.
Though his understanding of anatomy, perspective, shading, textures, and so on was unimpeachable — as Homer Simpson would say, his paintings “look like the things they look like” — he was uninterested in photographic accuracy. Comparing his final works to the reference photos he shot reveals the liberties he took, rearranging and repositioning his subjects to better achieve his aims. There is often gentle exaggeration in the posture and expression of his characters. Just as easily he could have been a cartoonist. Composing pictures is where he shined brightest.
In high school, my art teacher used “The Runaway” (pictured below) as an example of subtle yet brilliant composition. All that white negative space creates a stark image. The boy’s face is the focal point, and Rockwell has placed many things to guide our eyes back toward it. Following the policeman’s shoulder strap upward leads to the blackboard framing the head of the waiter who looks down at the boy, his cigarette pointing in the same direction. If we follow the shoulder strap the other direction, it leads to the upper beveling of the panel on the counter that leads to the boy’s belt, which curves slightly upward, guiding our eye up the boy’s right side toward his face. His shirt is the only yellow object and draws our attention immediately. None of this is flashy or obvious, but our brains pick up on it.
Perhaps Rockwell’s most iconic image is “Freedom from Want” (pictured below), part of the aforementioned Four Freedoms series. It is another masterpiece of composition, again employing copious negative space, flowing from the angelic window curtains down across the pristine tablecloth. The family sits on either side, leaning toward each other like no real person does, but it doesn’t matter because they form a procession of smiling faces leading toward the only two standing figures, the matriarch and patriarch, presenting a bountiful turkey. The face in the bottom right looks right at the viewer. His mouth isn’t visible, but we can tell from his eyes he’s smiling. We’re welcome to join in. Cool colors dominate the top half, appearing on Grandma’s dress, Grandpa’s tie, and the pinstripes of his shirt, and on the wallpaper on either corner. The rest of the picture exudes an inviting warmth on the family’s faces, the turkey, and the mound of fruit just within reach.
Right now, in 2021, we’re facing inflation, strained supply chains, continued racial tensions and the riot and unrest that follow them, the threat of an ever-more powerful China, a still present pandemic, and all the issues, personal and global, that have always plagued humanity. But amidst all that, if today you’re gathering with people you love to eat what throughout most of human history would be considered a feast, you are blessed. It was the blessings Rockwell cared about.Published in