Jewish World Review April 6, 2000 / 1 Nissan, 5760
Through the eyes of
I HAD BEEN COVERING a story that was as mean and
depressing as a case can possibly be; every time I
reported a new detail, the world seemed dimmer. I
was looking for an antidote.
So I went over to the Chicago Historical Society one
afternoon, where the exhibition "Norman Rockwell:
Pictures for the American People" is on display until
May 21. For a few hours, things were all right.
Some critics have always shown great disdain for
Rockwell, who died in 1978 at the age of 84. They
dismiss his paintings--many of which became
famous on the cover of the Saturday Evening
Post--as portraying too cheerful a view of America,
too optimistic an outlook on life.
I'm not certain that is fair. Rockwell knew life--he
saw the good and the bad. Knowing what he knew
of the world, he made a conscious decision about
how to depict it on his canvases. Too optimistic? He
had a reason. Here it is, in his own words:
"The view of life I communicate in my pictures
excludes the sordid and ugly. I paint life as I would
like it to be."
And his eye was a marvel. To wander around the
historical society and to look close up at portraits I
had seen before only as reduced-in-size magazine
covers . . . what a reporter Rockwell was. What a
reporter's eye he had. Little things: There is a
painting of an old city neighborhood in the years
when television was first gaining a foothold in
American society. On top of an old building was a
TV antenna; it was big, ungainly, new, and what
Rockwell had noticed--perhaps what only Rockwell
had noticed--was how it mimicked in shape, but
overwhelmed in scale, the crosses on old churches
in neighborhoods like that. He saw it coming--he
saw what TV was going to do to the old ideas of
Too optimistic? I am never able to look at
Rockwell's "The Problem We All Live With" without
feeling a catch in my throat. It was painted in 1964,
after he had left the Post (he was offended that the
Post's editors were demanding that he paint more
celebrity covers, and thus cut down on his own view
of life; the editors of the Post were in the thrall of
the very TV culture Rockwell had foreseen). So
"The Problem We All Live With" was done not for
the Post, but for Look magazine.
In it, a young black schoolgirl, dressed all in white,
carrying her book, is on her way to classes. There is
hatred on the wall we see behind her--that ugliest of
racial epithets is scrawled there.
And--this is Rockwell's genius--what we see in front
of the girl and behind her is four large men. We
can't see their faces; the top of the painting begins at
their shoulders. So we see that they are wearing
suits, that they are protecting this small child as they
walk with her. We know who they are because we
can read their armbands. They are United States
marshals--they are the United States government,
and they are making sure she can go to school
The details; the details. My favorite Rockwell
painting may be "Freedom of Speech," done for the
Post in 1943. It shows a man at a town
meeting--presumably in New England--standing up
to have his say.
Simple, right? But look at it. The man is a
laborer--the other men in the painting wear coats
and ties, but this man wears worker's clothing. His
hands are rough--if you look, you can tell that he
makes his living with them. Freedom of speech is
not just for the elite; freedom of speech is not just
for the privileged. It is no coincidence that this is the
man Rockwell chose to portray the freedom to say
what is in your heart.
And--I've never known how Rockwell did this--the
man's face is a little afraid, a little nervous--but his
eyes are full of courage. That is what has always
moved me so deeply about the painting--his face, his
mouth, tell you that perhaps the man is not
accustomed to speaking in public; perhaps coming to
this town meeting on this night was a decision that
was not so easy to make. Standing up to be heard . .
. that can be a difficult thing.
But the eyes! The man's eyes! There is so much in
his eyes . . . the eyes are the secret of that painting.
Because I had only seen it in small reproductions
before, I had never had the chance to look at the
eyes from a foot or so away--to look at the eyes as
Rockwell had painted them. At the Chicago
Historical Society I moved as near to the eyes as I
could get. They were so brave--so bright and so
brave. I tried to figure out how Rockwell had done
it. What technique, exactly, had he used--what had
he done with his brush, and with his paint, to get that
result? I couldn't tell, for certain--like all wondrous
art, the secret lay inside the artist. Those eyes--the
eyes in the painting, the eyes of Rockwell. . . .
"I paint life as I would like it to be," he said. The life
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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