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Norman Rockwell was arguably the most revered artist in America in the 1950’s. He was most known for his nostalgic, touching paintings, which depicted simple scenes from everyday life. This post-World War II and Korean War era, was a period of both prosperity and urbanization in the United States. People universally believed in the triumph and invincibility of America and the American way. It was believed that if Americans all pulled together, there was no force on Earth which could defeat the United States. This was a very important belief in the era of the Cold War.
Norman Rockwell was foremost an historian, telling the story of usual, uniquely American experiences, character and values through the medium of printed pictures – timeless scenes in bold colors printed in magazines, distributed nationwide, all of which immediately became treasured collector’s items . Norman Rockwell was once quoted as saying, “Without thinking too much about it in specific terms, I was showing
the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed” . This quote illustrates that Rockwell aimed to highlight the ordinary, which others would not normally observe.
The paintings, The Scoutmaster, Girl at Mirror, Saying Grace and The Runaway, were all painted in the 1950’s . They all depict a single facet of the idyllic, perfect American family. In the 1950’s, great respect for authority was highly prevalent within the family unit, although certainly not as pronounced in the earlier part of the century when Rockwell himself was a child . Nonetheless, Rockwell captures images of family life while it was still mostly intact, pronounced and well-functioning.
In the decade of the 1950's, the typical nuclear, patriarchal family was most dominant. It was composed of the blue or white-collar working father, the stay-at-home mother and at least one child, more often two children and one of each gender.
Television shows, such as Leave It To Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet, were the showcases for the so-called “perfect family” . Although these so called perfect families arguably never really existed, the allure of being one became the perfect fantasy.
The painting, The Scoutmaster, depicts a man standing in a position of authority. It is evident that it is early morning when all the other scouts are sleeping. With the fire burning and the pot on the fire cooking, the centrally positioned man stares straight out of the picture. This particular portrayal of a man is suggestive of his superiority to most other men. He has awoken early to tend to others and is handsome. These superhero-like qualities which Rockwell presents to his audience suggest that others would want to be him, or like him. This man could have been portrayed as standing in that exact same position without other scouts sleeping in the background; therefore the viewer can infer that they were included in the picture intentionally. This inclusion is to show the viewer that this is a leader who has taken charge, and taken upon himself the responsibility to tend to the needs of his scouts. This trait, which Rockwell accentuates, suggests his authoritative role to the scouts in his charge. This picture illustrates his perfection as a role-model, he is the epitome of the perfect man that all men would wish to be, and all others would wish to have within their families or intimate circles.
Norman Rockwell’s Girl at Mirror, depicts a young girl, perhaps about twelve years old, sitting in a dark attic. She’s looking intently into a mirror. On her lap, she’s holding a magazine from which a photograph of the movie star Jane Russell stares out at her . She’s just arranged her hair, note the comb and brush to her left, to match the style of the hair in the photo; she has also applied lipstick. Jane Russell, the face in the magazine was a noted American actress, to which many young girls looked up as the “perfect woman” . It is no coincidence that the girl in the photo is trying to imitate her look. This superficial craving for adulthood together with her attempt to emulate the image of the actress shows her yearning to become the perfect American, idolized by others. As many girls in that era did, she is trying to judge herself by standards of adult beauty. To the left of the mirror in the picture, there is a doll. The little girl is at the cusp of growing up, and is at that sensitive point of exchanging her doll for more adult things, such as magazines and make-up. The star illustrated in the picture is her role-model, and the innocent little girl hopes that her future would be as bright as that of the star of magazine and motion pictures. This is a true example of a typical American dream and very much illustrates the values of the day.
The painting, Saying Grace, depicts a woman and a child saying grace before a meal in a busy restaurant, as other diners observe them with a bit of open curiosity. This photo shows how the typical American viewed others who did what was formerly quite a common religious activity. Saying grace was evidently no longer commonly done by Americans, especially not in public places . Rockwell is satirizing the fact that an easily done prayer to say thank you to one’s Almighty for all the bounty which they have, and is now, for whatever reason, more unusual than usual. Everyone else looks rather astonished. This photo perhaps is suggestive that Americans should be more openly religious. The child, who would probably rather be playing kick ball at that moment, is taking time out to pray while others are not. Displaying the two most “innocent” people of society, the elderly lady and child praying suggest that all should pray, too. In this picture is yet another powerful illustration of Rockwell’s idea that people should admire families that have religion in their lives, not those that don’t. This was a value being gradually lost from our American society.
The Runaway shows a pair of authority figures and a little boy who has run away from his home; note the wrapped bundle tied to the stick at the foot of the boy’s stool. The people are a large, broad-shouldered police officer and the tall soda fountain clerk. Both adults in this picture were usually highly respected individuals within their community. The size disparity between the small child and the adults further accentuates the authoritative nature of this picture’s setting. Comforting this boy at an ice-cream stand presents a highly reassuring setting for this picture. While the adults perhaps question the boy about the reason for his decision to run away, and presumably ask him his name, about his family situation and correcting the little boy’s choice, they treat the boy to a soda. The boy could grow up in the mold of either of them, and continue towards adulthood as another ‘perfect’ American. Also, it shows that the boy’s elders perhaps know better than he, and can offer valuable insights into life. Since it is evident he ran away from his home, Rockwell suggests that the fake superficiality of the belief in the perfect family is nothing guaranteed: could the prevalent image of a perfect American home be just a myth? This question is left open and unanswered by Rockwell. It seems ironic in this current day and age that the man listening in on the officer’s advice is smoking; while surely a common habit of that day, smoking is now known not to be good for one’s health.
The 1950’s is portrayed today as a golden era of nostalgic perfection . The perceived perfection of this time in our history may be due to America’s collective desire to forget the fear everyone had about the prospects of a nuclear war. Adopting the notion of a faux model family was a simply a way of hiding peoples’ true inner feelings. In retrospect, Rockwell’s paintings point out this thin veneer as a falsehood for all to see. Rockwell’s popular paintings conclusively illustrate for his viewers his uncanny knack for the typical, and his ability to transform the ordinary into a visual image pleasing to all, still highly memorable to this day.