Over the years, critics of the legendary Norman Rockwell have labeled the artist “a cornball and a square” and his paintings an “unending cliche” that are nothing more than “bourgeois bromides” – sentimental snapshots of a time that never was and a season that will never be.
While the tide of such antagonism has been changing of late, fueled largely by fans like Star Wars’ George Lucas, such cynics have long missed the point behind the famous painter’s works.
“The view of life I communicate in my pictures excludes the sordid and the ugly,” Rockwell once observed. “I paint life as I would like it to be.”
In some ways, the artist was emulating the words of the apostle Paul, who encouraged believers in Philippi, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8).
Then there’s Peter, who urged:
For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:5-8).
In both of these instances, Christians are encouraged to pursue the good and even reach for the perfect – all the while knowing perfection is nevertheless unattainable aside from Jesus Christ.
Rockwell’s colorful depictions of marital fidelity, childhood, family life and deep seated faith resonated with America and Americans – because they were all good things. His scenes captured the journey and the pursuit. It gave people something to reach for, even if the reach was often just beyond the grasp.
It was the Reverend William Jewett Tucker, the ninth president of Dartmouth, who once observed, “No great cause ever moved far until it had taken possession of the imagination of men.”
Norman Rockwell was successful because he painted America’s dreams.
For the last twenty years, Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” have hung in our home alongside our stairs. Inspired by President Roosevelt’s 1941 address to Congress and commissioned in 1943 to help raise money for the war effort, the series consists of the values our nation fought for in the Atlantic and the Pacific: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
We talk about these principles as a family, and I’d like to think our three boys are absorbing them by account of their daily proximity to the four powerful illustrations.
As a boy, Rockwell’s famous, “Home for Christmas” hung in our family’s living room, right over the stereo cabinet (remember those?). Depicting Christmas Eve at twilight in Sturbridge, Mass. (the painter’s home), the snow-covered scene twinkles and tugs at your heart, capturing the excitement of the holiday as shoppers hustle home to their families with their gifts, hopes and dreams.
My parents are both gone, but the print now hangs on the wall beside the desk in my home office. It brings me back, jogs my memories and fills me with hope regarding what could be.
While the facts suggest Rockwell was not a conventionally Christian man, his granddaughter, Abigail, contends he enjoyed a “quiet faith” that inspired his many religiously themed paintings. Raised by devout Episcopalians, he attended church regularly as a boy, but was not connected with a congregation as an adult.
“Saying Grace is perhaps my grandfather’s most beloved painting,” she wrote. “He painted it in 1951 for the Thanksgiving cover of The Saturday Evening Post. A woman in Philadelphia wrote him about seeing a Mennonite family saying grace in an automat. The image really expresses my grandfather’s attitude — curious, respectful, and accepting but also suggesting that that kind of religion is something of the past. He placed the scene in a shabby railroad restaurant instead of an automat — my grandfather loved the romance of train stations, transition points of many hellos and goodbyes, arrivals and departures, a story in each.”
Rockwell had a rare gift for painting life as it might be. Few of us are able to replicate that type of storytelling with that same talented touch. Yet as Christians, we can all strive to live lives that reflect God’s gracious and generous nature. We can and should reach for God’s best. In a world that mocks the traditional family, we’re called to live counterculturally, rejecting the cynic who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.
So, go ahead and take the paint and the brushes God has given you and only you. Today and the days to come are your canvas. What dream has He placed on your heart? What is He calling you to do? Paint the picture you see by making the most of the limited time He has given you to do it.