Wednesday, July 09, 2008

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 to be 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 panting 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


Unknown said...

Another great analysis. Thanks Nick!

Words Twice said...

Thank you and Semper Fidelis!

Unknown said...

I did not know how much I liked this painting until I read your careful, exact, scrupulously detailed analysis.

Now I love the painting.

Based on your two Norman Rockwell paintings, you have a very great skill -- rare among Objectivists (or anyone else for that matter) -- for looking insightfully and deeply at a work of art and being able to explain it to those who wouldn't otherwise get it. I wish you were a prominent, widely known, and read art critic. I think you would force people to re-evaluate, certainly Rockwell, at bare minimum.

This little scene in the garage has a great power. The solemnity of the Marine, looking into a grim distance. The respect and rapt attention. Particularly of the mechanic on the bench and the younger boy. The torch is being passed in a way (a good, less understated, subtitle for this): There is a sense that the Marine is going to be a memorable life role model for the two boys.

Also quite satisfying is the spacing of the people. And the sense they are sort of a communing or meeting of the generations: each of a different age - the two boys seem to be perhaps 8 and 12. The two older men, maybe 50's to 60's and the oldest maybe in his seventies. The two working mechanics, might be thirties and forties.

Minor observations: If you look closely at the back of the picture it looks as if the Marine (Joe) has his high school athletic jersey up on a peg. And the older boy, in a red athletic uniform, has enough facial resemblance that he could be the Marine’s younger brother.

--Philip Coates

Lawrence of Otago said...

Thanks for the analysis.

I too spotted the "joe" (symbolic of GI Joe?)on the clothing and assumed they belonged to the Marine, Also I thought they were overall, so wa thinking he was an employee before the Draft.

Lawrence oO

Christian Wernstedt said...

Great analysis! /CW

AmySF said...

I recently purchased this painting in poster form simply because it spoke to me, but wanted to learn a little more about it and that's how I stumbled across your analysis.

Beautifully written. Thank you for taking the time to objectively peer into this stunning portrayal. I echo a previous commenter: I love this painting even more now that I've seen the details I previously missed through your eyes.

Nicholas Provenzo said...

Thank you for your kind words.

John J Nowhere Man said...

Thank for this analysis in particular and for the series of five Rockwell paintings.

May I share a couple of my own observations about this cherished favorite painting of mine?

Our returning Marine wears the Guadalcanal Battle Blaze, just discernible, on his left shoulder, which, according to the, then (1943) current issue of The Leatherneck I saw quoted: "The Guadalcanal Shoulder Patch or Battle Blaze may be worn only while attached to the Ist Marine Division or one of the supporting units in the Guadalcanal engagements. " Which would put our returning Marine in a specific place, the very hard-won Solomon Islands.

The newspaper article on the wall, which is a full-page (front page?) states, "Garageman a Hero," and "Marine Joe ..." the rest of his name in print is blocked by the Service Flag. The dark garment with what looks like hand painted "JOE" in two places must belong to Joe, our returning Marine. Maybe it's his coveralls to wear in the shop?

I had my own theories about the relationships of the characters. To me, the mechanic sitting on the bench wearing a hat is Joe's (our returning Marine's) older brother, a strong resemblance, and the boy leaning against him is that man's son, or Joe's nephew. The other mechanic behind Joe I figure to be an uncle or older cousin as this looks like a family business to me and his age and posture makes me think that he is not Joe's father. Just by the staging of this scene, I think the brother seated on the bench has the closest relationship to Joe of these characters and is depicted as having the most importance, after Joe of course.

As I look at this scene, I imagine the immediate moment before, which I imagine was Joe telling the story of how he came into possession of that flag, which I would imagine is a serious story that involved the real horrors of war experienced first hand by Joe. We see his brother in speech, I imagine his brother asking, "and did you ...." fill in the blanks, "kill him?" or similar and Joe is looking off, reliving in his own mind the events he is being asked to describe and how to put what he sees in his memory into words. Joe is seated low, on some kind of box with his hat pushed way back (not how he wears it, it would fall off like this) clasping the Japanese flag which he has brought back from the war. The heavy man, in white shirt and peaked cap, postman? writes parking tickets? some very minor office, does not appear to be smiling to me but more in a grimace or a wince as if what he has just heard is difficult to hear without flinching. The intense focus of the group tells me that it is a grisly story.

Forgive me, but I am sure that the brother is not holding a cigarette but something else. It would fall out of his hand if it were a cigarette, it's not between his index and middle fingers. It appears to be longer, maybe three inches long and extends back under his thumb. It appears to possibly be metallic? with bold dark markings: is that an "A" or an "H"? and right at the tip of his thumb is a very bold and distinct "X" - - what is it?? I really don't think it's a cigarette. Is it another war souvenir that Joe brought?

If the kid next to Joe is his little brother, he is a lot younger. But he sits right up close to Joe, on the same box, legs touching, he's comfortable being close to him, like a brother. And yes, his hands are tightly clasped, looking up to Joe.

I love this illustration so much! Thank you for your astute analysis of this and all five of the Rockwells you chose for this!

Terbreugghen said...

I'm also a fan of this painting, and use it in a course I teach to college freshmen. All the observations above are true, valid, and excellent. I'm not sure that the men around him are blood relatives. I think one of the biggest issues is similar to the claim about the AMerican idedal of the "citizen army." When this young man joined the Marines, was sent to fight in the pacific, and returned a reticent hero, he exemplified many young American men. Marines have a saying, "the change is forever." Before he joined up, Joe was the lowest guy on the totem pole. He was a grease monkey sweeping floors in the local auto repair shop, hoping to someday learn something of value from his employer. When he returned, he was a changed man, object of admiration by his former boss, by the town's police, a representative of authority, and by the youth who would aspire to manhood. This piece (I have a copy above my dresser at home) seemed to me to be about a sea change from youth to American manhood, and the change in status and self-awareness that went with it. A true "rite of passage" that forms the American man.