Rockwell's art reflects a gentler, more tolerant America

September 22, 2000

Rockwell's art reflects a gentler, more tolerant America

WASHINGTON, D.C. - No one drew a cascading mustache on an old man like Norman Rockwell. In his portraits, the mouths that presumably were under there somewhere were silent, but the mustaches could sure talk.

Rockwell could write a chapter in a raised eyebrow, a dialogue in a sideways glance, a history book in a wrinkle.

With the Pictures for the American People tour, now winding down at the Corcoran gallery in Washington, D.C., Rockwell's work is finally moving from out of the shadow of illustration and into the sunshine of art.

My parents worked for Rockwell in Vermont in the '50s, so of course they've considered him a true artist long before the fact dawned on the nation's premier galleries and critics. More important, they say a kinder gentleman they have never known.


And it is the kind face of America through most of the 20th centuries that finds its way onto Rockwell's canvass. A couple of small boys may scowl an a girl wins their marbles, or a town constable hiding behind a speed-limit sign with a stopwatch may leer as he awaits his next victim, but that's about as close to a discouraging word as the Rockwell range ever gets.

Study a portrait by the old masters, and you may gain in insight into the mind of the subject. Study a portrait by Rockwell and you gain an insight into the mind of the nation.

Girl in the Mirror shows a youngster , magazine in her lap, staring into the looking glass. In her lap, a starlet stares glamorously out of a magazine. Chin in hands, the girl considers herself. The emotions seem to move through her face - hope, self-scrutiny, self-doubt, discouragement, fear, then back to hope again. What doesn't that tell about every American female adolescent in 20th century America?

In The Runaway, the kid - his belongings tied up in a red kerchief on a stick - sits at a lunch counter with the beefy cop. The boy has been nabbed, but the officer is in no rush to hustle him home. He's willing to sit down for pie and hear the kid out with the hope of talking sense to him.

Obviously he hasn't gotten through yet, because the boy's face is filled with defiance, pride and righteous indignation's as he recounts the high crimes and misdemeanors committed by his parents that forced him out on his own.

As is often the case with Rockwell, it's the third party that adds just the right punctuation. Here, it's the short order cook, looking on at the boy with amusement and a trace of admiration.

In The Marriage License, the focus is on the fresh, eager young couple filling out the forms, but the story is in the aging, weatherbeaten clerk, his face registering - what, boredom? Cynicism? Or remembrance of his youth and the hopes and dreams he and his own bride once shared? All three, I think.

Something that sets our country apart, I believe, is our brand of humor, and of course Rockwell captures this as well. Before the Shot shows the doctor preparing his needle and the boy, as he pulls down his trousers, up on a chair inspecting the physician's framed degree.

The Lion Share depicts a zookeeper, feet up on a rail and reading the paper, absently munching on a meaty sandwich. He's holding the sandwich next to a barred window, behind which the lion looks on with eyes like saucers.

Rockwell never thrust his beliefs upon us. Americans themselves were the storytellers in his work. But there is always a glimmer of commentary if you know where to look.

When television swept the nation, he painted a workman wiring an antenna to the roof of an old Victorian home. Inside, a man is whooping it up as the first electronic image filters into his home. The antenna is a distinctive, loopy design. And in the background a church spire can be seen off in the distance. Close inspection shows the spire of the church is shaped exactly the same as the television antenna. Television - our new religion.

But humor aside, two of what I believe are the most significant Rockwell pieces are "Freedom of Speech" (a man with dirty hands and tattered clothes standing to speak at a town meeting) and "Saying Grace" (a boy and his grandmother bowing their heads in a crowded, greasy diner).

Again, it's the onlookers who tell the story.

In Freedom of Speech, the man is surrounded with reputable, well-off people in their coats and ties. Yet each considers the man with respect and consideration, despite the fact that he is obviously beneath their station. In Saying Grace, the reactions might be quizzical, approving, startled or warm. But none would think of resorting to catcalls or ridicule.

But in both paintings, the overriding theme is tolerance.

We may not share religions or political views, but we share our Americanism. And that means respect for the feelings and the thoughts of others, even when we disagree.

This was the face of the 20th Century, and Rockwell captured it as no other artist has captured his people. I wonder if he would have found the same kindnesses in the faces he might see as we move into the 21st.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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