Thoughts by Mustang
One of America’s gifts to the world was Norman Rockwell (1894 – 1978). A New Yorker by birth, this gifted American painter and illustrator gave us his insight and reflections of what it was to be an American. Mr. Rockwell was vastly popular in his own time because of the illustrations that appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post magazine (for nearly fifty years). As part of this effort, we find several interesting series.
The Willie Gillis series were illustrations surrounding a fictional character who joined the service during World War II. No such person actually existed; Willie was an “everyman” character whose rank was Private and who was never depicted in combat. At the time, Norman Rockwell was in the prime of his life and the Saturday Evening Post had a subscription of over four million.
People tended to think that Willie Gillis was a real person — in the same way, that they believed Betty Crocker was a real person. He wasn’t, of course, but he did “represent” what the average young American who went off to war might have looked like. Gillis’ name was an invention of Mr. Rockwell’s second wife, Mary Barstow, who suggested it from a Rudyard Kipling character, Wee Willie Winkie. Rockwell’s Willie Gillis was seen as the typical American soldier, a young man who matured between 1940 and 1946 — as he should have. If Willie Gillis warmed the hearts of Americans during the war, he also helped to sell war bonds. Note: the illustration shown on the right (1943) was never published in the Saturday Evening Post.
And then our dear friend, Rosie — a story that began in 1942 when artist Howard Miller created a series of war posters to help inspire good workers at Westinghouse Corporation. Miller called his series the “We can do it” images. Miller’s model was an actual war worker (originally misidentified) Naomi Parker Fraley at the Alameda Naval Air Station, California. But — and this is important, Miller’s image was never associated with Rosie the Riveter, a Rockwell character from 1943.
Rockwell’s image of Rosie received mass distribution on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on Memorial Day 1943 — a somewhat brawny looking woman taking a lunch break. She’s wearing Penny Loafers, which happen to be resting on a copy of Adolf Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf. According to the experts, Rockwell based Rosie’s pose on Michelangelo’s 1509 painting Prophet Isaiah. His model for this illustration was 19-year-old Mary Louise Doyle, a telephone operator in Vermont. Rockwell drew Ms. Doyle much larger than she actually was to give her the “brawny work woman” look.
Miller’s “We Can Do It” image was later borrowed by my good friend who blogs as Always on Watch.
One of Rockwell’s major works was a series he developed in 1943 he identified as the Four Freedoms series depicting Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. Each of these titles came directly from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s State of the Union Speech, delivered on 6 January 1941 (generally referred to as Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms Speech). It was this sort of effort on Rockwell’s part that made him a nationally recognized artist rivaled only by Walt Disney.
Historians note that Mr. Rockwell was apolitical, but as a human being, he advocated tolerance for differences, courtesy toward others, kindness, and a willingness to defend Roosevelt’s four freedoms.
As it happens, late in Mr. Rockwell’s career, critics stepped forward to dismiss his work. They argued that his art was “too sweet,” and not at all reflective of the real America. They were idealistic, sentimental, fictional portrayals of life in America — and served no purpose. Well, of course, that kind of push back had to have some basis — but my feeling is that whether Rockwell “nailed it” depended on where you lived, when you lived there, and your family situation.
For several years (ages 9 to 12) I lived in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. When I think back to those years, it is easy for me to see the Rockwell paintings. There was a time, when I was around ten years old, that I was thoroughly angry at my parents — and it was my decision to leave home and find my own way in the world. Honestly, I’m not sure what my ten-year-old brain was telling me, but a kid has to have principles, you know. This would have been around 1955. My capture and return to parental control by a local patrolman, after he bought me a donut and a glass of chocolate milk, could very easily have been the model for this Rockwell painting in 1958. Where I lived, policemen didn’t arrest children and take them to jail. They took them home to their parents. Rockwell’s policeman in this illustration was a real cop named Dick Clemens. I don’t know who the lad is, but you know … it could have been me. That’s the way kids looked in my neighborhood.
A few years later, Mr. Rockwell’s illustrations took a more serious turn. Anyone who is not touched by his depiction of six-year-old Ruby Bridges being taken to school by U.S. marshals during the Civil Right period simply has no heart. I remember those days. They were not nice days — but then, neither were the war years. Still, Norman Rockwell gave the American people a sense of their goodness in the world. Not everyone had that experience. We know that … But many people did. It was honestly reflective, wholesome, and reinforcing. Today, though … one wonders what the ideal illustration might be.
This is where my writing partner takes over.