I first saw him standing beside the pool at a hotel in Lake Attilan, Guatemala. Wavy grey hair, a slender, erect posture, and his trademark cravat were unmistakable. It was Norman Rockwell. The year was 1972 and I was on my honeymoon. He and his wife Mollie were vacationing. My husband and I greeted him with trepidation, marveling later at his cordiality. That evening we had drinks with the most famous illustrator of his time and his wife. The next day Mollie told me they were leaving their holiday early because Rockwell couldn’t stand being away from his studio for long. That explained, in part, how the artist I had loved as a child for his Saturday Evening Post Magazine covers could be so prolific.
Recently I visited the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts to see the exhibit Keepers of the Flame: Parrish, Wyeth, Rockwell and the Narrative Tradition. Seeing some of Rockwell’s paintings again, and the more than 300 covers he did for the Saturday Evening Post, reminded me of my childhood, and more than that, of what America was like in the years of my growing up and beyond.
Paintings like Girl at Mirror in which a young girl dreams of being a woman, or Henry Ford, The Boy Who Put the World on Wheels, featuring a boy about the same age showing off a wooden car he has designed – crafted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Ford Motor Company – were lighthearted reminders of what life was like in the mid-20th century. So were more poignant works like the one in which a black family moves into a white neighborhood, scrutinized by local white children, and another in which a little black girl is escorted to school by police.
Rockwell had an amazing way of showing us who we were then, and what we stood for. Today, his work asks us to consider who we are now, and begs the question, can we recapture our goodness and regain our collective humanity? Can his storytelling in pictures, which so brilliantly expresses our shared experiences and multifaceted lives, return us to our better selves?
Nothing in Norman Rockwell’s vast repertoire reveals our fundamental American ideals more than “The Four Freedoms,” featured as Saturday Evening Post covers during the height of World War II. Based on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s annual message to Congress two years earlier, the four paintings depict the right to be free in speech and worship as well as to be free from want and fear. Perhaps the most famous of these paintings is one in which a family gathers around the Thanksgiving table while Grandmother serves a large turkey. But who would not recognize the working man speaking at a town hall meeting, reminding us of the freedom of speech? Or the parents tucking their two little ones into bed at night, free from fear? And who among us is not moved by the gathering of immigrants, praying together?
Rockwell’s acclaimed 1950 painting, “Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” now owned by the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art and on long-term loan, also captures the things in daily life that can be meaningful. In the painting, three amateur musicians enjoy an evening of music in the back room of a barbershop – Rockwell’s hometown barbershop in Arlington, Vermont. Rockwell, who often used his friends and neighbors as models, had the shop’s owner, Rob Shuffleton, model for the fiddler in the back room. It’s a work that speaks to the importance of community and reveals the artist’s affection for, and understanding of, rituals that celebrate the commonplace.
Seeing the great illustrator’s work again seemed very timely. It moved me, as it always does. But it also prompted me to remember with affection, and hope, what America has always stood for, even when it fails to live up to its own principles. Seeing something as simple as a portrayal of a cop helping a runaway kid in a diner made me want to reclaim our human spirit and to remember how we all need to be there for each other. Looking upon a soldier feeding a hungry child reminded me that there is always something we can do to help. Seeing “Rosie the Riveter” made me feel strong and proud again.
I long for the days, and the kind of people, Rockwell shared with us. I want to see and feel and trust America’s fundamental ideals of democracy, freedom, and human dignity again. I want to be free to speak and to act and I want to be free from fear. But most of all right now, I want to believe that we can return to being the country my immigrant parents came to, the country that enabled me to be who I am, the country I want to love and be proud of again.
I want to reclaim Rockwell’s America – blemishes and all – because I believe, as he did, that we are fundamentally a good and kind nation, made up of people from all walks of life, all classes and colors, all belief systems, all ages and orientations, who have in common the most important values of all: tolerance, respect, generosity, kindness, and empathy, drawn from hearts that understand and cherish the rituals and rhythms of shared lives.