What Makes Norman Rockwell Possible?

I must confess to an intellectual sin. I delight in the paintings of Norman Rockwell.

I know I’m not supposed to do this. As a college professor, I have a duty to pretend to others that I derive real satisfaction from poems whose sentences cannot be parsed, from sculptures that look like green blobs from a bad space-alien movie, from spattered canvases, from photographs of sullen people doing things with their bodies that even machines shouldn’t have to suffer, and from philosophies that propose the justice of letting a baby die to save a certain number of dogs, the number determined by precise calculation. I’m supposed to nod appreciatively as all these emperors pass by.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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The truth is, I can’t stand the lot of them. But as I said, I delight in the paintings of Norman Rockwell. I don’t pretend to be able to judge their technical mastery. They sure seem to me to be subtle and complex as compositions, but I’ll have to defer to others who know the business better. But if they’re accused of sentimentalism, that’s a charge I’ll flatly deny. The sentimentalist uses cheap tricks to elicit a superficial feeling. Usually we think, in this regard, only of the mawkish, like the ghastly Precious Moment cherubs, or the jingoistic, like a harmless but tasteless patriotic song– “She’s a Grand Old Flag,” perhaps.

But there’s a sentimentalism of the vile and the nasty, too. Almost any contemporary television show will suffice for an example. The jokes are not really clever. They employ a gimmick, like a snide allusion to sexual perversion, to elicit the laugh, regardless of whether it fits the human situation.

But I don’t believe that Rockwell uses cheap tricks. That’s not to say that he doesn’t intend to elicit genuine feeling. His famous painting of the young lad going off to college, waiting in the train station with his hardworking father and the family collie – Rockwell seems to have loved painting dogs – is moving just because it probes feelings that we recognize but don’t always want to acknowledge. We see the weariness of age, and the cheerful heedlessness of youth. The boy has the world before him, and his face is filled with brightness, but also a touch of ingenuousness and folly, while the old man cannot even bear to lift his head up. We don’t know for certain whether he already misses his son, or whether he thinks his son is too full of himself, or whether he is resigned to giving the boy over to a life that will never be like his own. It’s a great painting. If Picasso had painted it, I daresay there would be learned articles written on how revolutionary the thing really was.

Norman Rockwell didn’t want to be revolutionary. Though he wasn’t a regular churchgoer, he seems to have beheld the world with a sensibility that, in the history of the world, has only developed within a Christian civilization. It is what made his art conceivable. Consider the art of the ancient Greeks. You will see, on a vase, a lovely etching of a typical scene from the gymnasion. This youth over here is slicking himself up with oil. The boy over there is handing his cloak over to the slave. The two there are stretching their limbs. They are engaging in activity that is central to the Greek ideal of citizenship. The gymnasion was the place for nurturing those male bonds whereon the Greek city was founded. It was also the training ground for intellectual endeavor and, of course, war.

What are they not doing? I’m looking at a triptych by Fra Angelico, of the Last Judgment. While the saints are beholding Christ with rapture, and embracing one another, a ring of small children are dancing in a ring, hand in hand, with angels joining them, child and angel, child and angel. Again, this is not sentimental. It is instead profoundly theological. “Suffer the little children to come unto me,” said Jesus, “for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” The children are delighting in one another’s company. They are playing. And it is play, not work, that brings us closest on earth to the child’s spirit of rapt contemplation. One cannot work at wonder.

And that sense of wonder, especially at what is but small or homely or unregarded, is everywhere to be found in Rockwell’s paintings. For the Christian world, properly understood, is the only real haven for man, because in it we learn not only that man is made in the image of God, but that God so loved the world that He gave us His only begotten Son, born of a virgin and laid in a manger. Every man we meet bears within himself the mysteries of Christmas, and Good Friday, and Easter, whether he is aware of it or not, and we find these mysteries most clearly manifest in the meek and the lowly.

On some level I believe that Norman Rockwell understood this. Some critics try to shore up his reputation by pointing to the “serious” political paintings he executed: the small black girl escorted to school in the midst of National Guardsmen, or the man standing up in a town meeting to exercise his freedom of speech. I don’t wish to deny the success of those works. I think they are very good. But Rockwell’s heart lay elsewhere.

I have before me, for instance, his illustrations of the four seasons. All four feature a boy, his whiskered grandfather, and a spaniel mutt. Now this already is peculiar. Why should we care about an old man who probably doesn’t do anything important anymore, if he ever did, and a small boy, and a tag-along dog? The Greeks didn’t care for them; the piety-mouthing Romans never cared for them. The modern intellectual ignores them, as does the modern poet.

But Rockwell lavishes them with attention. In spring, we see them going fishing. The old man is carrying the tackle over his shoulder and is looking into the distance, while the boy is almost bent double as he races, barefoot, with eagerness, and the dog scampers along. In summer, the three of them are on the grass. The old man is on his back, dozing peacefully, while the boy is sitting and plucking the petals off a wild daisy, maybe thinking about a pretty girl he likes. In autumn, there’s a pile of leaves, and the boy leans over it intently, about to light the leaves on fire, while the grandfather, leaning on the rake, pretends not to be watching too closely, and the dog crouches, fascinated by what’s about to happen. Then at last in winter, of all times, when one might expect that age would finally wither for good, our three heroes are on a frozen pond, and the boy in the background, his hands on his knees and his skates askew so he can stand still, gapes with glad surprise while the old man, like a real athlete, executes a perfect figure eight, and cocks his head with pride. He’s a boy again, he is! And the dog barks, his silly legs slipping sideways out from under him.

What do I find here, that is so lacking in the pagan world, whether old or new? The delight in being, first of all. It’s as if the boy and the old man could cry out to the ordinary natural world of ponds and fields and leaves, “How good it is that you exist!” They would therefore agree with the philosopher Joseph Pieper, except that no doubt they don’t read philosophy, having better things to do on a hot summer afternoon. But it isn’t only the natural world that moves them. They delight in one another, too. And just as the landscapes that Rockwell paints are never “picturesque,” but rather any good old place in a city or town or countryside, so the people he paints are rarely possessed of classical beauty. It’s a rather rakish old grandpa on those skates, and a big-eared boy plucking away at the flower. They don’t merit our attention because they are important in any worldly sense. We’re not memorializing a young Alexander, or an Einstein. They merit our attention because they are human beings, and that already is mystery enough to fill the universe.

One thing more. They are children, these three. They are all of them young, in the sense that they occupy themselves not with schemes of power for dominating the world, but just with those things that are nearest to them and worthy of their attention. They have fun, it is true, and there’s not much innocent fun-having in modern paganism. But their whole attitude toward the world is open. The old man looking off into the distance in spring, or falling asleep in the summer, is a man capable of contemplation, as is the boy, lost in thoughts of love; and even the humble dog accepts things cheerfully as they come. This is a world capable of great sorrow — we know that the old man will die, and the boy will grow up and know his share of disappointments — but also, and more important, a world of great beauty and joy. It is a world in which the adult may aspire to the condition of the child, not in sentimentality, but in fundamental openness to the gifts of God. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. Whether Norman Rockwell meditated upon that revelation, I don’t know. What I do know is that without the Christ Child, there would be no Norman Rockwell, nor many other good things we are apt to overlook or toss away.


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