Norman Rockwell’s Triple Self-Portrait

“Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.” – Dau Voire

As an artist, I often times wonder what my role in sharing my values with society is. In a time in which everyone shares their opinion ad nauseum, it inspires me to see others craft their ideals–quite literally.

From another time that predated the technological boom, Norman Rockwell is commonly known for illustrations that cover decades of Boy’s Life hand guides and magazine covers that defined what people thought of as the “American Dream”. Many things may have changed, but his political works and translation of American values to canvas still seem fresh today.

Rockwell’s first Boy’s Life illustration

For his first paying job as an artist Rockwell received $50 a month for a completed Boy’s Life cover and set of illustrations. For three years, he held this position until he was promoted to the role of art editor. His first published magazine cover, pictured above, illustrates a young man commanding the role of a captain.

Another cover by Rockwell

Along with the Boy Scouts, Rockwell shared values that were influential in the upbringing of generations. For example, “Out of Defeat – A Story of Washington” was a vital edition in the education of young men at the time. It set a standard of perseverance, courage, and bravery in the face of obstacles–whether that meant striving for a better education or slugging a home run from the infield.

Good Scouts (Portrait of a Girl Scout), 1924

Painting the Little House, 1921

The subject matter of his works, both published and painted, mirrored common scenes of American life, values and lifestyle. In “Painting the Little House“, we see a boy as he paints a bird house. The painting also seems to be, in line with his boy’s life work, about creativity and industry and the foundation of an American ideal. His faithful companion, what looks like a terrier mutt, watches closely nearby with loyalty as well as an amused look on its face.

“You Can Trust Me Dad” Life Magazine cover, 1917

Many of his messages transcended generations. With new conflicts arising, the same young men that Rockwell had inspired in their youth were being sent to war across the globe. The simple phrase, “You can trust me dad” reverberates the confidence and virtues that a father would hope to instill within his son. It also speaks to transferring knowledge and values to the younger generation to face a conflict that they have only academic knowledge of.

“Shiner” alternatively “Outside the Principal’s Office”

Often Rockwell’s works subtly spoke to progress and equality. In “Shiner“, despite the curiously comical looks from behind, the girl smiles in her rebellion and her bold attitude towards breaking a social norm. The image lets the audience share in her confidence and self-respect and sends a message about stereotypes.

The Problem We All Live With, 1964

In “The Problem We All Live With“, the defiance of this young woman as she struggles to receive an education without harm displays the need for change in America. The girl is clothed in white, a symbol of innocence, despite being surrounded by wanton vandalism. Sadly, she walks quickly behind the leading guards, seeking safety, in an environment that proved hostile to minorities.

Freedoms

The Four Freedoms, 1941-1943

Rockwell’s message was not just for a certain denomination, ethnicity, or social class but, was meant to stand for the humanity in all. Freedom of Speech, one of his favorite pieces, was the first in a series of four that highlighted the fundamental rights cherished by Rockwell. Inspired by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s State of the Union Address, these four paintings were quickly converted to prints.

GoldenRule

Through visual storytelling Rockwell started conversations that matter, if they can affect our ability to accept and empathize. Through representing the niches in life, he portrayed an opinion through his body of work. It is inspiring to me that Rockwell spoke of social justice through his medium and makes me wonder what I will discover and how I can share my own.