Five Great American Paintings (Part IV: The Problem We All Live With)

This installment discusses the fourth of five paintings that I consider among American painter Norman Rockwell’s greatest artistic achievements.

The Problem We All Live With (1964)

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Norman Rockwell is most clearly identified with 20th-century American sentimentality; that is, with the creation and alleged over-romanticizing of the American mythos. This identification is intended as an indictment, for while better-respected artists were busy depicting the universe as expressed through the sundry nuances of multi-color ink-blots, Rockwell dedicated his brush to representing real Americans (along with their quintessential spirit). One such American was six-year-old Ruby Nell Bridges on November 14, 1960, the first day black children in New Orleans would go to school with white children. Yet far from sentimental, Rockwell juxtaposes the beauty and innocence of this young child against the savage racism that animated large swaths of the American public at that time.

Rockwell’s painting depicts a young black girl, with the viewer looking at the girl at her eye level as if they were a child themselves. The girl wears a pristine white dress with white socks and sneakers; this is an outfit one often sees children wearing to Sunday religious services and indicates her finest attire. In her left hand, the girl holds a ruler, pencils, and two books; she carries the tools of a young student. She is surrounded by four white men in business suits; their anonymous faces are not shown to the viewer. The men wear badges of office on their coats and yellow armbands that indicate that they are federal marshals and they march together in lockstep and with fists firmly clenched; the men expect and are ready for a physical fight.

The reason for the men’s aggressive posture is made clear when one looks at the wall presented in the background. Scrawled out in paint is an ugly racial epithet intended to communicate the writer’s view of the alleged sub-human status of the members of the child’s race. A splattered tomato sits on the pavement, its fresh ejecta dribbles down the wall, the trace of its rays indicating that these ejecta were mere inches away from sullying the girl’s immaculate dress. Drawing the viewer into the drama of the scene, the tomato lies on the ground in a way that makes it seem that it was thrown over the viewer’s own shoulder; Rockwell does not permit the viewer to escape as a mere passive observer, but makes him an active participant in the scene depicted in his painting.

Yet in perhaps the most striking aspect of Rockwell’s canvas, the girl does not seem to notice the rage that surrounds her; instead, she innocently pantomimes the marshals, her small hands clenched as theirs are and her tiny feet in step with their own. Furthermore, while the men guard the girl, they make no emotional contact with her; they do not hold her hand or offer any gesture of warmth or compassion. They protect her from physical assault, but on every other level, the girl stands alone and is as exposed as her white dress against the angry invective of the mob. Yet through all, she remains pure; her youthful innocence remains intact.

I have yet to encounter any parallel to this work in American art. Rockwell assembles a host of contrasts, from the innocence of the young girl, to the tomato-splattered wall, to the grim determination of the marshals to defend the girl, to their seeming emotional indifference to her plight and he presents them for us to reconcile. Yet there is no easy reconciliation; such is the nature of the problem we all live with. What Rockwell makes clear to his viewers are the stakes of this conflict; one must truly be depraved not to feel empathy for the girl and contempt for those who would act with such irrationality and malice against her. The cornerstone of the creed that animated this child’s enemies was that by nature, blacks were separate and beneath whites, yet Rockwell shows us a young girl thrust into a maelstrom with her humanity plainly in view and for all to see. The world seethes angrily around her yet she remains a guiltless girl, a young scholar on the first day of classes.

As I alluded to earlier, Ruby Nell Bridges, the first black child to attend William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans and the first black child to attend an all-white school in the South, is a real person. Now a mother and speaker on the history of the era that she as a six-year-old child helped to pioneer, she is able to share her story and its implications in her own voice. Nevertheless, the voice that Norman Rockwell was able to give her and others like her though his painting continues to inform us to this day. At root, it is a message of humanity in the face of adversity and contempt, and it is a message that deserves to be told.

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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Five Great American Paintings (Part III: Lincoln the Railsplitter)

This next installment discusses the third of five paintings that I consider among American painter Norman Rockwell’s greatest artistic achievements.

Lincoln the Railsplitter (1965)

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The power of art rests in its ability to encapsulate the essence of a thing, often in a way that would otherwise be quite difficult to explain in plain words. For example, a philosopher can talk about human virtue–its source and its central role in our lives–but an artist possesses the ability to show virtue; that is, to quantify it and make it real before the viewer. It is in this way that art serves as a crucial spiritual compass, guiding man toward his proper path, inspiring him to persevere when confronted with adversity. Norman Rockwell achieved as much through his 1965 depiction of Abraham Lincoln as a young man in his painting “Lincoln the Railsplitter.”

Again, squelching what we know about Lincoln’s life and focusing only upon what Rockwell presents in his depiction, we see a tall, lean and strong man from a ground level vantage point. The man, perhaps in his early twenties, is dressed in the simple attire of a common laborer. He carries a large ax in one powerful hand; a thick book is gently cradled in the other so he can study it as he walks. He carries a coat draped over his arm; he is prepared for colder weather. A red bandana is tucked into his front pocket, at the ready for him to use it to wipe the sweat from his brow as he works. A plumb-bob hangs from his suspenders; his work, while manual labor, nevertheless requires a tool that ensures accuracy and precision.

All the while, the gray fall sky accents the man’s giant silhouette. In the background, one sees a simple log cabin with a faint trace of smoke emanating from the chimney; fuel for this fire demands work and neither is wasted wantonly. In the foreground, a simple split-rail fence marks a boundary; this is private property. Two stumps of felled trees mark the extreme foreground. Perhaps the man cut these trees down himself with his ax; this settlement is the product of hard work performed recently.

Yet, of all the elements Rockwell presents before us, it is the eyes of this man that most command our attention. Almost closed, they reveal the focus of a man deep in thought; if you walked by him, he might not even notice you ensconced in his book as he is. The man walks with a dual purpose, but it is the discovery of new ideas though his book that indicates his primary goal.

The magnitude of Rockwell’s artistic identification is made clearer if one envisions the man without his book, instead relying strictly upon his physical prowess to secure his place in life. With his ax carried as a latent weapon, we might even evaluate him as a threat. Instead, with his book in hand and his focus firmly upon it, we see a man working diligently to make something better of himself.

Adding what we know of Abraham Lincoln’s history to the image presented before us, we see in Rockwell’s image the essential attributes of the man whose knowledge and wisdom would serve to preserve the American union and liberate the slaves.

Rockwell, in the space of his canvas, shows us that knowledge is power and that even a man from the most humble of circumstances has the ability to shape his own mind, character, and destiny. In another culture, the man presented might be a mere brute, yet his by his pose and the tranquil background that Rockwell presents, we are instead shown that under the Pax Americana, this man can choose to master his life through his mind and that he rises solely through the strength of his own efforts. He may face a struggle, but it is not a bitter struggle; he can prevail, and so can we.

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

Five Great American Paintings (Part II: The Homecoming Marine)

This second installment discusses the second of five paintings (now up one from the original four) that I consider among American painter Norman Rockwell’s greatest artistic achievements.

The Homecoming Marine (1945)

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To fully appreciate the genius of this painting, it is helpful to examine it not so much from the perspective of what one already knows about the subject (in this case, a US Marine returning from war against the Japanese Empire in the Pacific), but to instead focus on what the artist chooses to show us about his subject. Unlike a photographer, a painter has the complete power of selectivity in determining what is represented in his painting and how it is represented; as such, nothing is left to chance and it is through the artist’s deliberate choices that he is able to convey what he thinks is important about his scene. In art, it pays to focus on the artwork.

In this painting, Rockwell presents two boys and five adult men in a mechanic’s garage; one of men, the youngest of the adults, wears a khaki military uniform and commands the rapt attention of those around him. Looking upon the background, one sees a newspaper article hung upon the wall identifying that this individual is both a garageman and a military hero; the phrasing indicating that the man is not a professional warrior but someone with a peaceable background who nevertheless served in the armed forces and performed admirably. A smaller version of the photo of the man used in the newspaper indicates that the inhabitants of this garage knew the man before his newsworthy exploits; the blue star on a red and white flag hanging from the wall reflects a WWII tradition that indicates that he is close enough to them to be considered one of their own, even if his singularly red hair seems to indicate that he is not their outright son.

On the man’s uniform he wears various ribbons for military merit, one of them being the Silver Star, America’s third highest award given for gallantry in action against an enemy. His headgear is cocked back in his own personal style, again signifying his non-professional status in the military. In his powerful hands he grips a red and white Japanese flag; he does not clench the flag in a death-grasp, yet no one dares take this trophy from him. Rockwell presents the man in a reflective pause; his mouth is closed in silence and he does directly engage those around him with eye contact (even though he is clearly their center of their eyes). Instead, his face is focused outside the circle and he wears the expression of a man reflecting upon a grave matter—a matter that he himself has yet to fully reconcile.

The boy sitting to the man’s right looks up at him, utterly captivated by the man’s presence with his young hands squeezed together with white-knucked intensity. The blonde-haired boy standing across from the man leans against the workman’s bench in a contrapposto post and presents a dumbfounded expression of shock. Two older mechanics are presented above the man, one sitting on the bench, his nearly-consumed cigarette held in his gently clasped hands as it burns down to its last embers. This mechanic is the only individual in the scene shown to be speaking, yet the position of his mouth indicates that he speaks faintly; that is, he speaks to the man with a tone that shows his understanding of the gravity of the man’s experiences. The other mechanic stands over the man, tobacco pipe in mouth and with a soft smile on his face which seems to indicate both his interest and his pride. The last of the two men each circle the man, both older, one corpulent and uniformed in the garments of some local office of public service, the other ancient and frail, yet bent over with keen interest in the man.

When one combines all of the elements Rockwell represents in his painting with what one knows of the historical record, such as the fact that the Marines performed valiantly against a ruthless and determined enemy, that the Marines were a citizen army, and that those who served in combat would return to their peacetime lives but were nevertheless indelibly marked by their experiences on the battlefield, it is inescapable that Rockwell’s Marine Homecoming is a brilliant examination of heroism and hero worship in America. One would be hard-pressed to imagine such a scene in Soviet art; the Soviets being far more interested in inserting some overtly political message into their art than to let a subtle scene such as Rockwell’s go unmolested.

Furthermore, as much as Rockwell is known (and derided) for painting common scenes, there is nothing common about his Marine hero. Rockwell represents a man who has endured extreme hardship and whose acclimatization back into civilian life may not necessarily be easy. Nevertheless, the man has the attention—and the admiration—of those who were part of his former life. He is their champion and they do not run away from him. For those of us who admire Rockwell’s work, neither do we.

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

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)

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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

Writing Lessons from an Unpunished Murder

In my study of Army Captain Phillip Esposito’s murder and the subsequent acquittal of Staff Sergeant Alberto Martinez, the government’s only suspect in the slaying, I’ve heard it frequently argued that the court-martial panel that sat in judgement of Martinez did not properly understand its instructions, and thus acquitted Martinez in error.

Without hearing directly from the panel members who voted to acquit Martinez, it is difficult to confirm these claims. To date, none of members who voted “not guilty” have come forward to explain their reasoning. As difficult as it may seem for them, I hope that they will soon come forward and explain their votes.

But in the meantime, if it’s possible that some members of the Martinez panel misconstrued the instructions they received from the court, I see two questions:

  1. Were the court’s instructions to the panel unclear, even if the instruction otherwise met the requirements of the law; and
  2. If the court’s instructions were unclear, how may we improve upon them to prevent future errors in justice?

In a May 28th talk before the Atlanta Objectivist Society, I’ll discuss my findings.

I invite those interested in the Martinez case, and any writer who seeks to improve the clarity of their writing, to hear my argument.

Here’s the flyer for the talk:

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