It’s not considered hip to like Norman Rockwell. But, fortunately, I gave up on the hip idea a long time ago (hence the madras shirts and khakis I wear). Last term, I suggested that one of my students look at the Norman Rockwell Four Freedoms. I was met with a blank stare, as if I’d suggested researching an obscure 14th century painter. This was a terrifying moment. People’s grandmothers like Norman Rockwell. I assumed everyone in the civilized world knew at least a few paintings. I was wrong, and that is the tragedy of today’s wayward youth. They all need a good dose of Rockwell’s wholesome small town. That would keep them away from the constant huffing.
Obviously, this world is a mythical place sort of like Pleasantville. Rockwell’s paintings go beyond the sentimental. They carry symbols and iconography that allow us to manufacture a clear narrative. It is not just a picture of the teacher’s birthday. The scene is set with a multitude of clues. The coat in her hand and chalk eraser on the floor communicates her surprise. A line of small gifts is on her desk. Each of these tells a story of the children preparing for this day at home, or on the walk to school. Even the tiny section of the American flag sets the scene in a minimal way.
The Problem We All Live With, painted in 1964, depicts Ruby Bridges walking to the newly integrated Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. It is the most requested piece at the Norman Rockwell Museum. This incredible painting succeeds with the use of a tool I often discuss, seduction. The unassuming and innocent approach welcomes the viewer into the piece, and then communicates a complicated and disturbing subject matter. The racial slurs on the wall, and thrown tomato contrast with the girl’s white dress and confident stride. The touch of a notebook with stars and the red and blue pencils suggests the American flag subtly. This is not sentimental, or purely journalistic. Rockwell was a genius at utilizing symbols, color, and scene to convey a narrative in a single moment.