Most people know Norman Rockwell for his “Saturday Evening Post” illustrations.
Freckle-faced boys. Girls with pigtails. Friendly cops. Baseball. Christmas.
A paradise of white, nostalgic, Americana.
From 1916 through 1963, Rockwell would create 323 cover images for the iconic magazine, securing in the minds of millions what America was, stood for and looked like.
“The commonplaces of America are to me the richest subjects in art,” Rockwell said. “Boys battling flies on vacant lots; little girls playing jacks on the front steps; old men plodding home at twilight―all these things arouse feeling in me.”
That was largely the small-town, suburban America I grew up in. My experience more modern, but my parents’ childhoods in the 1940s and 1950s could have largely been snapshots fit for Rockwell’s “Saturday Evening Post” covers.
One of my first arts experiences was visiting the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts around about the time when I was 30 in the mid-2000s. The bucolic Berkshires setting among rolling hills and hardwood forests supported the artist’s idyllic “Saturday Evening Post” version of America.
Boys battling flies (fly balls in baseball).
Little girls playing jacks.
Old men plodding home at twilight, presumably after a day’s work.
From my personal experience, this all checked out.
Unfortunately, it would take many years – primarily the tortures of 2020 – for the unreality of this picture of the nation to appear to me.
White boys battling flies. Black boys battling racist cops.
Little white girls playing jacks. Little Native American girls without running water on the reservation.
Old white men coming home from work, the weekend, a pension and retirement in Florida on the horizon. Old men of all other races struggling throughout their entire lives to find and keep work in a racist, capitalistic economy which necessarily abuses them to prop up the whites.
Rockwell’s “Saturday Evening Post” version of America wasn’t wholly inaccurate, but it was terribly incomplete.
Marginalizing Rockwell as a sappy, saccharine chronicler of an American myth that only existed for a privileged subset of the population is similarly correct, but incomplete.
For starters, Rockwell was a professional artist. He illustrated and painted the images which his audience and employers desired. It made him famous and provided handsomely for his family. No one can blame him for that. This was his job, not a hobby.
Rockwell could also rear back and – to continue with the baseball references – throw fastballs high and inside when he wanted to, causing those delusional magazine cover pictures of America to dive for cover. The best example of this is his “The Problem We All Live With” illustration of Ruby Bridges’ walk into the William Frantz Public School in New Orleans on November 14, 1960. The little, Black girl integrated the school protected by a phalanx of U.S. Marshals.
Rockwell illustrated the scene for the January 14, 1964 issue of “Look” magazine. The “N” word is scrawled on the wall behind her. A hurled tomato squished on the ground.
The Problem with All Live With is as searing a condemnation of race in America, and therefore America, as anything Jacob Lawrence ever created.
The painting was loaned for display at the White House during the Obama Presidency and Ruby Bridges’ actually served for a period on the board of the Norman Rockwell Museum.
All of which brings me to the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens Norman Rockwell painting, one of the jewels of the museum’s collection, a picture which rarely goes off view and features an elderly couple in a hospital waiting area.
Second Holiday (1939) initially presents as another one of the artist’s glorifications of the white American experience. I suppose in that the couple has access to health care, it could be read that way. The painting, however, has a deeper, richer subtext. It supported a short story of the same name by Richard Sherman in “American Magazine” according to the Cummer’s wall text.
In the story, the couple’s doctor advises the pair to visit the renown Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota for further examination of an illness the wife is struggling with. The couple treat the trip as something of a vacation, seeing as how they’ve only been out of the small town they live in once over the previous 40 years. Perhaps their honeymoon?
Both put on a brave face in the picture, and here’s where it gets interesting. In Sherman’s story, the wife’s illness is much more grave than either lets on. The wife refuses to share with her husband the seriousness of her condition to protect his feelings. The husband, aware of this, refuses to acknowledge his understanding of her failing health in order to protect her feelings of wanting to protect his feelings.
It’s deliciously agonizing, complex and real. A heartbreaking insight into love, care and devotion.
Proof positive that Norman Rockwell was more than just swimming holes and parades.