Progression of Art
Boy With Baby Carriage
Boy With Baby Carriage was Rockwell's first Post cover. Typical of his earlier montage paintings, this humorous boyhood coming-of-age theme is a fine example of his skill at capturing the gentle travails of human experience. The three figures and wicker carriage are positioned against a blank background so as to direct most of our attention onto the human figures in the composition. In this respect, the main "action" in the painting is created by the facial expressions of the boys. Rockwell created a simple, stark image relying on black, white and grey with touches of red to bring our attention to the boys' faces. It was his attention to details like this, and simple, but felt empathy with his subjects that so endeared Rockwell to the American public. Other illustrators of Norman Rockwell's time period, including Robert Gunn, Robert Tannenbaum and Leslie Thrasher, tried to imitate his style but failed to capture the essence of their characters or to emulate Rockwell's sixth sense for time and place.
Magazine editors were quick to recognize the human touch in Rockwell's exceptional compositions. The Post's art editor Kenneth Stuart, commented for instance that "No guide is needed for Norman's work" since the "warmth of his understanding reaches [the] People [who] experience his paintings." Stephanie Plunkett, chief curator at the Norman Rockwell Museum, backed that view when she said that for Americans Rockwell presented a picture of "who we are, what we could be, what we could look like [and] what our values could be."
Oil on Canvas - Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts
A Red Cross Man in the Making
The Red Cross Red Crescent Magazine, the official magazine for a movement of the same name, is published by international groups in Geneva and Switzerland, and is written in six languages. The organization is humanitarian and dedicated to protecting the lives and dignity of victims of armed conflict. This painting was originally painted for the magazine to exemplify the good will of a Red Cross man, seen here in the guise of a scout attending to a small dog that has suffered an injury. It was also chosen to be used as Rockwell's first calendar cover for the Boy Scouts of America. Rockwell, always a keen observer of his world and its issues, captured the realities of individual lives as well as the mores held dear by society. In many of his paintings, he promotes personal responsibility, patriotism, heroism, gender equity and/or racial integration which he saw as the foundations of the American way.
In A Good Scout, Rockwell used a series of diagonal lines and a dramatic plan of light and dark to pull the viewer's attention to the small, forlorn dog resting on a red pillow in the center of the composition. The larger dog and the young man are also posed in angled positions to complete the grouping while the dark areas surrounding the figures keep our attention on the animals and the boy's helping hands are placed in the very center of the composition. The use of softly glowing areas which seem to disappear into the darkness is not unlike the technique of Rembrandt, an artist whom Rockwell admired greatly. The old dented pot filled with water, the scissors and a small glass bottle in the foreground introduce us to the event in the middle ground while the strong red shapes in the background, perhaps a wood or coal stove, seem to glow with warmth. Great attention was also given to the scout's uniform with the textured and banded hat, kerchief, his belt with key ring and study shoes with precisely detailed soles.
Oil on Canvas - Boy Scouts of America
Willie Gillis Food Package
Rockwell first introduced Willie Gillis as a fictional character in the first of a series of World War II propaganda paintings. Eleven of these were used as magazine covers by the Post between 1941 and 1946. As a boyish private, Willie charmed the American public from his induction through discharge, and boyhood through manhood; he became a highlight of Rockwell's wartime work. Rockwell described Gillis as "an inoffensive, ordinary little guy thrown into the chaos of war". Many Post subscribers assumed that Rockwell's Willie Gillis was a real person which encouraged them to further support the war bond effort. The artist's intent was to infuse a sense of duty, patriotism and optimism for those young American gentlemen going to war.
Carefully holding a white package with a red label, "FOOD", Willie glances anxiously to his right. War zone tradition dictated that any package from home was to be shared among the troops. Seven muscular officers are tightly grouped behind him and looking expectantly at the small package. The men are older, taller and dressed in uniforms of a higher rank. Rockwell deliberately presented these six determined men as one solid form in the center of the composition as a worrisome pressure for Gillis. Their expressions range from happily expectant to grimly resolved as they march with purpose and vigor behind Willie and his package. The five blue uniforms and the different angles of the caps are arranged to bring our eyes into and around the dense grouping which is also broken up by the tan uniforms. The four swinging arms with clenched fists help separate the men and create some space behind Willie. It is a very simple, shallow composition but it is full of gentle humor as the expression on Willie's face suggests that he would prefer not to share his bounty with his companions!
Oil on Canvas - Location Unknown
Freedom From Want
Freedom From Want is the third painting in a series of four called the Four Freedoms and is considered by many to be one of Rockwell's finest works. The series was inspired by President Franklin Roosevelt's January 1941 Four Freedoms State of the Union Address to Congress through which he identified four essential human rights - freedom from want; freedom from fear; freedom of speech; freedom of worship - which needed to be universally protected. Rockwell's paintings were published in 1943 in the Post, accompanied by essays commissioned from writers including Booth Tarkington, Will Durant, Carlos Bulosan and Stephen Vincent Benet. When the Four Freedoms paintings were first published, the Post, received a deluge of requests for reprints. The government was amongst the requestees and millions were distributed in connection with the Treasury Department's War Bond drives. Rockwell's paintings showed up as posters in post offices, schools, railroad stations, and other public and semi-public buildings.
Freedom from Want was composed using a wide angle view of a large happy family ready to enjoy a lavish meal. All the characters were family members or friends whom Rockwell photographed separately before painting them as a group gathered in his living room in Arlington, Virginia. A grandmother wearing an apron is shown carefully setting down a large platter holding a large turkey while the grandfather looks on with proud approval. The painting, sometimes known as I'll Be Home for Christmas, symbolized Rockwell's hopes for a post-war period and as such it presented an idealized vision of America as a rural and agricultural haven. Art critic and biographer Deborah Solomon described this composition as offering "a new level of descriptive realism. Yet the painting doesn't feel congested or fussy; it is open and airy in the center." The extensive array of delicately detailed and modeled dishes, glasses and serving items are framed by the many individual faces. One of the faces is even turned toward the viewer, as if to include us in the celebration.
Oil on Canvas - National Archives, College Park, Maryland
Rosie the Riveter
Rosie the Riveter was representative of the many women working in factories and shipyards during World War II. Their role, previously occupied by men who had been recruited to the armed forces, was to produce war supplies and to build and maintain the US air fleet. The female workers were invaluable to the US war effort and Rosie inspired women to give up their domestic roles and to seek work in the factories. The painting was used as the cover illustration for the Post on Memorial Day, May 29, 1943. The strong, proud woman is depicted with a ham sandwich in her left hand and a rivet gun resting across her lap. She is posed against an image of the American flag. Hitler's derided manifesto, Mein Kampf, is the footrest under her shoe which is an iconic American loafer.
Rockwell borrowed Rosie's strident pose from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling painting of the prophet Isaiah. His usual interest in textures and details, meanwhile, are embodied in her socks, a Red Cross pin and a V for Victory pin. It seems likely that the painting was influenced by the 1943 song "Rosie the Riveter" by John Jacob Loeb and Redd Evan which carried the same patriotic message. Indeed, the painting is still used today by feminists as a symbol of female empowerment.
Rosie herself was in fact a Vermont resident, Mary Doyle O'Keefe, who worked as a telephone operator close to Rockwell's home. In later years, O'Keefe said she was pleased to have helped with the effort for the war bond drive: "I was very pleased [...] I am proud of this painting. It's a symbol of what women did for the war, to do their part, and to give up their nail polish." (O'Keefe added later that she did pose with a ham sandwich, used a plastic toy machine gun but never saw a copy of Hitler's Mein Kampf!).
Oil on Canvas - Crystal Bridges Museum of American History, Bentonville, Arkansas
A middle-aged woman and a young boy, seated at a crowded table in a noisy diner, take time out to pray before eating. The two young men sat at their table stare at them while other diners turn to observe them also. This was Rockwell's message: we share a world where many different people exist and we can live in harmony if we show respect for others' beliefs. Rockwell clearly felt that the American people had a collective source of strength and a heartfelt prayer of gratitude for the gift of love.
Post readers voted Saving Grace their favorite magazine cover of the 1950s. The poll was taken shortly after Thanksgiving and the poll victory seemed to symbolize the central importance of "the Holy" in so many national celebrations. The painting was accompanied by the text "Our world is not the happy place these days" and was meant to comfort Americans during the period of readjustment in the post-war period. In its narrative, ordinary Americans could find faith in love and kindness and the strength to trust in others.
The composition, very carefully and tightly planned, was staged in real life at a café near Times Square in Manhattan. In fact, Rockwell first brought the furniture from the café to his studio and made photographs to use for later reference. He used the deep focus photographic technique - whereby foreground, middle ground and background are in equally sharp focus - to stage the scene. The result is a very busy, but well-balanced, depiction of an interior space with the fine picture detail rendered in color and shadow. Our eyes are invited to enter the story on the lower left where the edge of a table leads us to a man reading his newspaper and glancing over towards the praying customers. The table for four, occupying the middle ground of the composition, makes a center feature of the boy's white shirt while the background is the net-curtained front window with a city railroad scene beyond. All additional and personal items are painstakingly detailed and employ touches of color, such as repeated areas of white, tan, red, dark brown and black. Even the smallest personal items are included in Rockwell's scheme, such as the lady's hat, the collection of glass condiment containers and the umbrella, carry bags and the boy's hat on the floor. In December 2013, the painting sold for $46 million dollars in a bidding war, an American record and twice the estimated value.
Oil on Canvas - Private Collection
While Rockwell would continue to paint for The Post for a further seven years, The Discovery proved to be the last of his seasonal (and quite popular) covers. Confirming his technical virtuosity, this work marked a subtle shift towards a greater thematic realism. Here for instance Rockwell seems undeterred by the fact that his image - which humorously captures the shock of realization on the face of a young boy on discovering his father's hidden Santa Claus costume - might reveal the myth of Saint Nicolas to innocent children.
In 2007, the Akron Art Museum celebrated its new building expansion with the premiere of a "blockbuster" touring exhibition: American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell. Director of Curatorial Affairs, Barbara Tannenbaum stated that "Rockwell was able to express what it means to be American with a directness and vitality that no other artist in our history has ever matched" and she counted The Discovery amongst his "greatest and most moving works." His biographer, Deborah Solomon, observed however that Rockwell had been "demonized by a generation of critics who not only saw him as an enemy of modern art, but of all art." One might add that his art was under-representative of such a racially and culturally diverse nation. That criticism notwithstanding, Tannenbaum suggested that Rockwell's "beautiful" painting stood proud as a "wonderful lesson in both history and techniques and [of the] processes that remain vital" to the genre of narrative painting.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts
Rockwell painted The Rookie, also known as The Rookie (Red Sox Locker Room), for the March 2, 1957 cover of The Saturday Evening Post. The scene depicts some of the Boston Red Sox team members in their locker room. A new player has arrived dressed in a rumpled tan suit carrying a brown suitcase, baseball bat and glove. During the summer of 1956, Rockwell convinced the Red Sox management to send him four players from the starting line up to Stockbridge Massachusetts, deep in Red Sox country. The team members did not even know who Rockwell was at the time. For authenticity, Rockwell invited the catcher Sammy White, the pitcher Frank Sullivan, right fielder Jackie Jensen and Billy Goodman, the versatile baseman, to his studio to pose for photographs. He also had a local high school baseball star, Sherman Stanford, pose as the new rookie player. The actual Red Sox spring training site was in Payne Park, Sarasota, Florida so Rockwell visited there to take photographs of the team's locker room.
The players stare at the rookie with apprehension. The player on the right edge of the painting has his right hand covering his mouth, perhaps stifling a laugh or in disbelief. The only one smiling, rather tentatively admittedly, is the rookie himself. Like many of Rockwell's characters, The Rookie champions the underdog during a time of challenge. There is an autobiographical element to the painting too since Rockwell often felt that he was an underdog in his younger life. He did not possess many of the athletic qualities admired in young boys and teenagers, nor was he tall, strong or socially adept.
Rockwell posed the figures meticulously to lead our eyes to the rookie through the many angles created by their postures, their profiles, the different slants of their shoulders and the dark baseball caps. The player seated on a bench directly in front of the rookie, in the center of the composition, captures our attention since his is the most complicated, actively angled pose. He looks directly up into the rookie's smiling face with a questioning expression. All of the light and dark areas of activity are balanced by one vertical on our left and the horizontal bands running across the composition: the lockers, windows, bench and the rookie's suitcase.
Oil on Canvas - Private Collection
The Problem We All Live With
This painting depicts Ruby Nell Bridges (who in adult life joined the board of the Norman Rockwell Museum) a six-year old African American girl, being escorted to her New Orleans school on her very first day by four United States Marshals. Her assigned school, The William Franz Elementary School, was one of two all-white public schools where desegregation was implemented in 1960. As a consequence, the school personnel experienced race riots and death threats against the black children. It took more than ten years for the New Orleans public schools to fully integrate and even longer for the local Catholic Schools to follow suit.
The Problem We All Live With became an iconic image of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. On the wall behind the walking figures are written slurs, including the word "nigger", the acronym "KKK" and the remnants of a smashed tomato which angry protesters would have thrown at the group. This painting was Rockwell's first for LOOK magazine and it was published as a centerfold in the January 14, 1964 issue. The little girl is the focal point of the composition but she is balanced by the blood red splotch of the remains of the tomato. The strong juxtaposition of the light areas versus the dark areas, especially the bright white of her dress with her dark skin, is complemented by neutral tan and brown areas punctuated by the crisp black shoes. Rockwell prepared by taking photographs of legs walking, some wearing pants, in order to capture the patterns of folds and creases in the pants of the faceless forces of justice: the United States Marshalls.
In 2012, an intern, Devan Casey, at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, recounted reading a letter on display near the painting from a man in Tennessee, Chester Martin, who thanked Rockwell for showing him the severity of the situation. Mr. Martin had written: "I have never been so deeply moved by a picture [...] Thank you for showing this white Southerner how ridiculous he must look." Yet, many such letters were sent that were not at all complimentary such as one from G.L. Lebon from New Orleans who wrote: "Anybody who advocates, aids or abets the vicious crime of racial integration is nothing short of a traitor to the white race." People of all types across the country were paying attention; despite entrenched prejudices against his "conservative" outlook, Norman Rockwell demonstrated that he could in fact generate strong emotions through social commentary. In 2011, President Barack Obama displayed the painting at the White House as part of the 50th anniversary of Bridges's walk into history.
Oil on Canvas - Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts