Old habits die hard, or, the return of the American smile.
People are smiling at me. In the elevator.
When I go into a public bathroom.
When I’m entering or leaving a shop.
When I’m turning the corner in a hallway.
I didn’t know how much my facial muscles have longed for this.
The American smile. The obligatory turning-up of the corner of my mouth, the small grin, the crinkling of the eyes that says, “Hi, I exist and I acknowledge your existence.”
It came back so easily. And it’s comforting. I can’t believe I’ve gone so long without smiling at strangers 😛
And it’s gonna be hard to go back to a place where that is very much discouraged.
Our visit to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts gave me a lot to smile about.
This triple self-portrait depicts him as older, younger, and how old he really is, in the middle.
Rockwell, a quintessentially American artist (whose work is recognized by nearly anyone who’s looked at a magazine) has a collection that – when you look at it as a whole – can be relatable to all Americans. It is of course mostly white, middle and lower-class American daily life that is depicted, but mixed in with that is the documenting of our cultural history of racism and integration, which was so refreshing to see.
Here, Rockwell shows an African American family moving into a white neighborhood, and the curiosity of the white neighbor children. It doesn’t look like rude or hostile curiosity, which suggests they will become friends; however, if you look closely at the window on the top left, you’ll see someone staring out the window who’s more likely to think it a scandal.
Perhaps artists tend to be at the forefront, but considering Rockwell’s work was considered old-fashioned, it’s great to see that he was showing Americans of all skin colors all along. In many cases, front and center, like this painting of Ruby Bridges, the first African-American child to integrate into a Southern, all-white school.
This happened during an explosive chapter in the American Civil Rights Movement, which also recalls the Little Rock Nine. The guide explained to us that when Rockwell heard about Ruby Bridges, he called for four US Marshals to come model for him (yeah, he was famous enough for that). They were very disappointed when they realized that their faces weren’t in it. But can’t you see why? It would take the focus off this little girl, facing a situation where the power dynamics are completely off. Another funny thing is that it took Rockwell ten tomatoes before one really smashed, and he could paint it.
Rockwell’s work also spans many age groups, from the very young:
“Puppy Love” leaves open the mystery of the affection between two kids, but not the way the little boy’s puppy feels about being left behind.
This cover, designed for the Saturday Evening Post, shows an unlikely young person reading the post, but in this way widens the possible audience. The perfect placement of the magazine model’s head over the little girl’s also implies the material transformation and social pressure for beauty that is rampant in our culture (apparently, always has been that way).
To a range of ages:
“Going and Coming” shows a common message for anyone who has ever gone on a car trip. In the beginning you’re excited, at the end, just excited to get home. Notice how the staunch grandmother keeps her exact position in both halves.
To the old:
“Gossip” is one of my favorite paintings of his, showing precisely how, and with what glee, gossip spreads – true or not. Rockwell pictures himself in the bottom row, the one wearing the gray hat with the black ribbon. Apparently, the gossip is all about him 😉
Sometimes his work goes international, as with “The Golden Rule”:
A version of this painting hangs in the UN. It depicts white and black Americans, Jewish and Christian Americans, Middle Easterners, Africans, Asians and South Asians. Notice how some of them are looking down at the quote, which we call “the golden rule.” The funniest part of the painting for me is the little secret hiding under the Rabbi’s (center left) beard. The man who posed for the Rabbi was actually Irish Catholic – he was the retired postman in Rockwell’s town.
It also goes international in relation to American life specifically, as with this painting of alumni Peace Corps fellows – the Peace Corps is a program that sends American citizens abroad to rural areas to help (build schools, spread health knowledge and practices) and promote international diplomacy on the ground. It was founded in 1961 by JFK (upper left corner).
To go back a little bit… In February 1943, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) gave a speech which later came to be known as the “Four Freedoms” speech, as a result of the ongoing war against the Nazis. He mentioned freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech.
I really encourage you to look at larger photos of them to get the incredible detail Rockwell included, like the lemon reflection in freedom from want, or the doll on the floor in freedom from fear. Also, there is a man who repeats in all four of the paintings. Can you find him?
A really cool exhibit in the museum drew out the similarities between two seemingly disparate artists – Rockwell and Andy Warhol. While Rockwell showed American life on the ground, Warhol took care of the pop culture and rapidly multiplying aspect of it. In this way, they both played a role in “Inventing America.”
Just see the difference in how they depicted Jackie Kennedy, JFK or Richard Nixon.
They even had a room filled with the watercolors and oil paintings of James Warhola, Andy Warhol’s nephew! He has had a 40-year long career of illustrating sci-fi, fantasy, and children’s books. Just check out this supernatural gathering in a bar.
After we left the museum proper, we checked out Rockwell’s last studio, which was transferred to the museum’s property from another town. He never painted in its current location, but look at the view:
Afterwards we were hungry and checked out a tip for the locally famous Misty Moonlight diner. Now I’m big on diners as it is, but this one is a truly classic 50s-style diner, complete with pop culture references and all (a nice transition back in time from the Warhol high).
Black and white checkered floors, neon tube lights, red booths and panelling, and complete with Marilyn Monroe and Elvis on the bathroom doors.
I was in love with the chilli, the eggs and fresh hash browns, and the homemade whoopie pie (chocolate cake, the best I’ve ever had, with thick whipped cream in the middle) for four people – even before I was reminded of some of my favorite cartoon characters from the past:
Rocky: Do you know what an A-bomb is?
Bullwinkle: Certainly. A bomb is what some people call our show.
*And that’s all for now, folks.*