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)
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.