Norman Rockwell and American Memories

A couple years ago, while I was down in the D.C. area on a break from school, I stopped into the Smithsonian to check out a Norman Rockwell exhibit that was put together using pieces donated by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, both of whom are avid collectors of Rockwell’s work.  The concept behind the exhibit itself was fascinating, as two modern American cinematic storytellers humbly paid homage to a painter who’s artistic style had greatly impacted their own creative endeavors.

As I walked through that exhibit I recognized that while Rockwell’s paintings were hanging on the wall, but what was really on display was Americana.  Through his works, Rockwell captured a time in America that I’ve never really seen, and that I’m not sure ever really existed to begin with.  Even when he was satirizing, or romanticizing, or showing the vulnerability of this country, he always showed America at it’s best.  Rockwell’s paintings remind me of a memory, in that overtime you forget the minor details and intricacies of the story, and you fill those gaps in as you wish they had happened. After a while you’re left with a perfected memory, a version of the truth as you want to remember it.

Rockwell presented things as he felt they should be remembered, which is why with Thanksgiving just a few days away his paintings come to mind, for their idyllic scenes of American history.  When it comes to menswear we tend to idealize the past, as if every man back in the day wore an impeccably suit, polished his shoes each morning, sported the finest hats, and greeted every woman he passed with a tip of that hat.  We all know this isn’t true, but it’s how we’d like to remember things.  Rockwell’s work reinforces this ideology, giving us the type of memories that we can hold onto.  His highly detailed scenes portrayed well-dressed men with stories written in the wrinkles of their faces and across the creases of their clothes.

Thanksgiving is a time when we think back while looking forward, and I feel like this is an idea that Rockwell was concerned with in each one of his paintings.  His work was both a reflection of bygone days and an awareness of the future.  Rockwell covered all of America, from small town meetings, to the crisscrossing streets of cities, to the open fields of the country, and the crammed quarters of burgeoning suburban communites.  With over four thousand paintings, countless magazine covers, presidential portraits, and book illustrations in his repertoire, Rockwell’s work is a veritable guidebook to an America that may never have been there to begin with, but is still worth believing in.

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  1. Nice post. I always take Rockwell for granted, as common place old time American with little avante garde imagination behind it. Then I really look at the people, the characters. I can stare at his work for minutes and just soak in the feelings, the intentions, and the message. I think that America did exist. And if you change some skin colors and make the subjects a little more diverse, they reflect America today as well. I think Rockwell would have depicted the new American population in the same way he reflected the tradional – the contrasts, the hopes, the experiences are the same in many cases.

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