Searching for Norman Rockwell’s America

Rockwell in Catalina (Photo by Tim Van Schmidt)

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Tim Van Schmidt | New SCENE


On a recent trip to California, I went out to visit Catalina Island, about an hour and a half ferry ride off of the southern coast.

On that excursion — besides taking a tour of the island, sauntering along the harbor front checking out the tile art, and having a delicious taco lunch and a cold beer at a relaxed local restaurant — I also visited the Catalina Museum for Art and History.

The visit to this fine facility tucked back on a side street off of the harbor was inspiring in a way I did not expect.

The featured exhibit was a collection of artist Norman Rockwell’s 1940s magazine covers for The Saturday Evening Post. These are the World War II years and mirror the times with a positive attitude that today, some 80 years later, is a rare commodity.

Rockwell’s art is perhaps a little cartoonish — maybe a lot on the commercial side of art. You might say that it’s not fine art like a Rembrandt painting might be.

But inherent in all of his works at the Catalina Museum is a palpable amount of heart, warmth, humor, love, and sincerity. The specter of World War II added some other things to the mix too, like cooperation, collective pride, and duty.

What Rockwell’s art did not have is the anger, hate, selfishness, flippancy, shallowness, and suspicion that dominates a lot of our contemporary society.

As I viewed the dozens of Rockwell covers, it occurred to me that this is just the kind of thing we really need in the 21st Century. I need it, anyway, like a soothing balm on the soul.

I’m talking about being inspired to believe that good still has a place in the world — and it is not old-fashioned. Go ahead and scroll any of the major news sites out there today — are they inspiring in that way?

Rockwell’s art shows people coming together — it’s a refreshing idea. People are caring for each other and working together despite — and maybe because of — a world full of uncertainty.

The Homecoming May 26, 1945

For me, one of the most reassuring pieces in the exhibit was titled “The Homecoming”, published in The Post on May 26, 1945. It shows a young man returning from the war to the joy of who must be his family — everybody has the same red hair — and a diversity of neighbors.

There’s laundry on the line, a guy is fixing a porch roof, boys are hanging from the trees and people have their heads poking out of windows and doorways — and absolutely everybody has a look of loving delight.  It’s a precious moment and everybody is engaged — not one person is hunched over looking at their cell phone or texting.

Rockwell honored the women of the war as well. He published “Rosie the Riveter” in 1943. Even more striking is “Liberty Girl”, also from 1943.

Liberty Girl September 4, 1943

The exhibit had a photo of the original model who posed for the artwork, and Rockwell adds plenty to that. In all, a willowy young woman dressed in red, white, and blue threads, is striding purposefully ahead, her sleeves rolled up and ready for action.

She’s ready even though she is weighted down by an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink assortment of tools and gear — from a compass to an oil can to a dustpan, watering can, and much more — that symbolize the many roles women had taken on, especially on the American Homefront.

Most of all, “Liberty Girl” has a firm look of determination and resolve — there’s absolutely no monkey business here. She doesn’t have time to spare — this isn’t virtual reality — because there is real work to do.

The true centerpiece of the exhibit, though, was a famous series Rockwell created called “The Four Freedoms”. These were pieces of meaning and hope that were made to support the war effort, specifically in the selling of government bonds.

Norman Rockwell in the 1940s (Photo by Tim Van Schmidt)

The four pieces were titled “Freedom of Speech”, “Freedom of Worship”, “Freedom from Want”, and “Freedom from Fear”.

In “Freedom of Speech”, a “lone dissenter” is shone voicing his opinion at a community meeting — and the people around him are listening to what he has to say, rather than hurtling insults. 

In “Freedom of Worship” a diverse cross-section of people are praying, the words “each according to the dictates of his own conscience” displayed across the top — and it is a solemn and graceful moment, not torn by jagged violence.

“Freedom from Want” shows the patriarch and matriarch of an extended family delivering a Thanksgiving turkey to a table full of happy, smiling people of all ages — and the joy of being together as a family is apparently not marred by conflicting politics or differences of opinion.

But “Freedom from Fear” is the one that really struck home for me. In it, a couple tucks their kids into bed, who are already sleeping soundly. 

Freedom from Fear 1942

In the father’s hand is a newspaper that includes two keywords in the headline — “bombings” and “horror” — but the newspaper is folded and the kids are safe for another night. Are the kids in Ukraine safe tonight?

These are all idealized views of the world. But what is wrong with considering ideals? In fact, I would say that reaching for ideals will get us a lot further than throwing mud — and bombs — at each other.

Where is Norman Rockwell’s America? Is it in the rearview mirror and all we have to look forward to is more anger and division and reckless selfishness? That question makes me want to roll up my sleeves and say “C’mon people, let’s turn this thing around”.

Visit “Time Capsules by Tim Van Schmidt” on YouTube.