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)

Homecoming_Marine

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

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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

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:

Writing-Lessons-from-an-Unpunished-Murder