Wednesday, May 14, 2008

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 to be among Rockwell's greatest achievements.

The Scoutmaster (1956)

This panting 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 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 panting 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


Galileo Blogs said...

A Norman Rockwell exhibition came to New York some years ago. I was surprised at the breadth, quality, and enjoyable subjects of his work. I am looking forward to reading your full four-part series, and have enjoyed part one. Thank you.

TJWelch said...

Thank you for this. I also gained a new appreciation for Rockwell after an exhibit came to Atlanta several years ago. Two of the paintings which made an impression on me were Mining Our Coal, which depicts an incomparable sense of life, and Freedom from Want, which reminds me of Ayn Rand's comments on the Thanksgiving holiday.
Also, despite his reputation for depicting non-controversial subjects, he did take on issues such as racism and civil rights.

Joseph Kellard said...

I recall that my first conscious response to art as a child was to Norman Rockwell's paintings. I remember liking them for their detail and clarity—many of which had an almost photographic quality to them.

A few years ago I went to Rockwell's museum in Stockbridge, Mass., and found that beside his quintessentially American, Saturday Evening Post paintings of the “common man,” some of his paintings had political themes, and others employed rich colors (the red costume of a clown he painted comes to mind).

A prominent Objectivist once told me that they never responded to Rockwell because of the small-town simpletons he commonly painted. I can understand that reaction, to a degree. But what I like about those paintings is that subjects, from children to the elderly, seem so happy—they are depicted as loving life. That’s probably what I was also responding to back when I was a young boy, and it’s what makes me still enjoy his paintings. His painting of Stockbridge graces a wall in my apartment.

Lastly, I think this American sense of life that Rockwell expertly captured is why he was essentially shunned by the non-representational, anti-art establishment during his day. A few years back, Rockwell’s work started making a revival, in that his painting were being displayed in top museums throughout the country. I went to the Rockwell exhibit at the Guggenheim (a modern “art” museum) earlier this decade. It was like the art establishment, which has relegated his works to the basement for decades, was now showcasing him as a form of “shock value.”

Bill Bucko said...

Thanks for posting this excellent painting!

Another sign of Rockwell's technical mastery is its compositional scheme, of brilliantly arranged interlocking diagonals.

Anonymous said...

I have always loved Rockwell but had never seen this painting, and it is one of his best for the reasons you describe. Thank you!

It's his benevolent universe - his characteristic focus on the happy, the positive, the serene - that makes his art so unique.

And his ability to portray distinctive individuals and what they are feeling, their mood, is a very great artistic skill.

I do not agree that he (at least not characteristically) portrayed small town simpletons. Sometimes he portrayed people in silly situations, comic aspects. But that is not the same, nor was it a constant. Norman Rockwell could capture both the comic and the dramatic. Both daily life and historic events.

And he could certainly capture the heroic and inspiring:

One of my other favorite paintings by any artist from any time, I don't know the title, is one of his most famous, constantly reproduced.

It was about freedom of speech, a tall, angular, Gary Cooper kind of man in a work shirt standing up to speak at a town hall meeting. Striking, impassioned, admirable in the mood it captured.

A -very- great work of art.

--Philip Coates

Lawrence of Otago said...

Thanks for sharing this powerful image.

Did you notice the sticks with worn ends in front of the coffee pot, suggesting the fire was started in the absence of a flint.