Five Great American Paintings (Part 1: The Scoutmaster)

The American painter Norman Rockwell ranks among my favorite artists. Often derided as being mawkish and never taken seriously by the art establishment, Rockwell is nevertheless one of the few artists to dedicate his talent to capturing the American spirit in action. This first installment discusses one of four paintings that I consider among Rockwell’s greatest achievements.

The Scoutmaster (1956)

The_Scoutmaster

This painting depicts the central figure of a man standing sentinel over the glowing embers of a nighttime fire as boys peacefully slumber in their tents. The starry blue of the night sky and dry rocky soil suggest a remote and secluded location. The man, muscular and taut, stands uniformed but he is not militaristic, a policeman or a hunter; he carries no weapon upon his person or badge of office. No threats are presented, yet the man stands watch nonetheless, his modestly ringed hand resting upon his hip, his stick racking the coals as a gentle wisp of smoke flutters in the nighttime air. The man’s face is directed off-canvas, we know not at what, yet his expression reveals no tension; his gaze seems more inward than outward. By the different color hair of the boys, we see that they are not his, yet he watches over them as if they were his own. A small tripod stands over the fire, lashed together with a line whose bitter ends hang out; these are knots seemingly tied by the hands of a novice. An aluminum pot hangs off the tripod, a coffee pot rests nearby and rocks and small stumps ring the faint fire; hunger or want is of no concern in this scene. Instead, Rockwell presents an image of quiet calm; of a man standing silently as the entrusted leader of future men.

I admire this painting for its technical mastery; the contrapposto pose of the man feels effortless, the natural drapery of the man’s uniform and gentle billowing of his neckerchief reveals an artist who fully understands how body, cloth, and atmosphere interact with one another. I also admire this painting for its thematic presentation; even if we know nothing about the mission and history of the Boy Scouts, we can immediately see that Rockwell is depicting a man dedicated to the boys in his care and that this man is the product of specific values and achievements.

For example, set this scene in the middle ages, and one easily imagines a different scene where the man is a knight and the boys are his youthful attendants, yet here the man is depicted as serving the youth. Rockwell presents an expedition whose purpose is not to forage for food or wage war, but to instruct boys in the arts of self-reliance and personal independence–and that is why I see this painting reflecting a quintessential American theme. America is a land of plenty. The thing to be conquered, the challenge we would prepare our youth to face is not privation or other men; it is the mastery of their own nature as free and independent beings.

In my view, Rockwell captures the essence of those dedicated to such instruction and he captures it in a way that will resonate as long as images of this work continue to exist.

Future installments:

Part I: The Scoutmaster
Part II: The Homecoming Marine
Part III: Lincoln the Railsplitter
Part IV: The Problem We All Live With
Part V: Freedom of Speech

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