11 November 2010


Norman Rockwell Painting Smackdown, Round 2
(Revisit Round 1--because it's where all the images are)

Let's start with one of those mini face-offs to take your mind off the fact that I'm wresting back control for this part of the smackdown. Here are two paintings that, in hindsight, really should have made it, aye?

Breaking Home Ties vs. The Runaway

Both paintings feature boys who believe they can make it in the big world beyond their homes. Each has a father or father figure with him: one resigned and willing to trust that his son will do well; the other concerned and probably trying some reverse psychology to get the boy to wait a few years before breaking his own ties to home.

Remember that voting for your favourite of these two earns you an extra entry in my
"100+ Followers, 10+ Friends" Giveaway!

And now for the winners of Round 1, whose fates are out of your hands until further notice. =P

Boy Scouts vs. No Swimming --> Winner: No Swimming

Girl at Mirror vs. Girl with Black Eye --> Winner: Girl at Mirror

The Roadblock vs. Waiting for the Vet --> Winner: Waiting for the Vet

The Dugout vs. The Three Umpires --> Winner: The Three Umpires

Coming and Going vs. Gossip --> Winner: Going and Coming

The Art Critic vs. Triple Self-Portrait --> Winner: Triple Self-Portrait

Family Tree vs. Freedom from Want --> Winner: Freedom from Want

Moving Day vs. The Problem We All Live With --> Winner: The Problem We All Live With

Before we proceed to what you've all been waiting so patiently for, I want to say that I've finally done away with randomisation. Pairs are more interesting when they make sense, don't you think? The good news is that we will never again see carnage like Predator vs. The Terminator until at least the Final Four. (I'm still sorry about that, Christopher.) The bad news is that I didn't really need another license to get long-winded, did I?

Round 2
The "Waiting for the Vet" Eight

Going and Coming vs. No Swimming

Rockwell might not always get what girls are about, but his boys are usually perfect, in that carefree, I-could-be-a-Mark-Twain-character sort of way.

I think both halves of the first painting could have become individual works of art--but then he would have had to call them "First Day of Summer" and "Last Day of Summer" (or something similar) and shown them together, anyway. Rockwell is great at telling an entire story with the details of a single scene, but even he must have known that a summer holiday at the lake--an epic event in the life of a child (and a multi-faceted "dramedy" for the entire family)--needs more than one. Amazingly, without painting a single episode from the same, he managed to tell the tale with two!

The second painting is probably one of the most famous Rockwells in the world. It's just good. And it's not about the details (well, not so much), but about the spirit. That is, it has the classic appeal of Peter Pan, who is no boy and Everyboy. (And really, who doesn't love the way the dog is such a part of the gang??? If Peter had had a dog instead of a fairy . . . Oh, never mind!)

Winner: No Swimming--because this "Norman Rockwell meets Peter Pan" moment is freaking gold.

Girl at Mirror vs. The Problem We All Live With

Ever since the Mediaeval imagination decided that a young virgin martyr be the symbol for light in one of the darkest of months, we lovers of art and beauty have been able to see little girls as more than just little girls.

It was the first painting which inspired the most discussion in the Round 1 combox, everyone recognising that the subject has reached what J.M. Barrie might call the point of no return. She might not be a younger Orual, but she could be an older Wendy Darling: there's no going back to Neverland after this point, and that's both a shadow and new light in her life.

The second painting is of a real little girl; we don't have to mine literature for a character she could be. Ruby Bridges found herself at the centre of a furious hurricane when she became one of the first African-American students to be admitted into integrated schools. The first time I read her story, I cried to learn that only one teacher in the entire school was willing to teach her--and that they remained a class of two for a whole school year. (That would have been worth painting, too, aye?) Rockwell's depiction of this event reaches the stark and uncompromising standard set by the best photojournalism . . . but is that what we really look for in our art?

Winner: Girl at Mirror--because when the news of today is the history of tomorrow and we all wonder what the big fuss was about, we will still understand the gaze of this girl. (And because "Norman Rockwell meets Wendy Darling" is at least silver!)

Freedom from Want vs. Waiting for the Vet

And how do you like your animals? We find one at the heart of each painting--even if it's not the most fortunate member of its species! =P

It can't be fun to be a turkey during Thanksgiving! Unless, of course, you're the self-sacrificing sort--in which case, you'll be thrilled to be a source of happiness for some thankful family. This is hard for me to write about since I've never actually celebrated this holiday (unless a third Saturday in November at an American friend's house counts); indeed, when I was introduced to the first painting, I thought it could have been any nice family dinner. But the man peeping at me from the corner makes me feel welcome, anyway. The frame may be full, but there's room at this table! (Which would be a nice description of the whole United States as well.)

Now, I love Rockwell's dogs like anything, and wish I could take one home with me . . . but the second painting's puppy isn't a stellar representative of the whole kennel, is he? Then again, this isn't about just a dog, but also the boy who loves him. Boy-and-dog was Rockwell's Madonna-and-Child. If you look closely, you'll see that none of the other dog owners are boys; the waiting room might be full, but this lad's aloneness is more than an optical illusion.

Winner: Freedom from Want--because every third Thursday of November I ever spent with an American far from home has convinced me that Thanksgiving is the holiday of his country's heart.

The Three Umpires vs. Triple Self-Portrait

So we have three umpires up against three Rockwells. (LOL!) Here, it's all about the faces.

In the first painting, although it is the rain that provides the plot and the scoreboard and coaches (?) in the background that provide the context, all the soul is centred on the three main figures. This isn't one of Rockwell's busier canvases; our eyes are immediately drawn to the umpires' faces, which we follow to the ominous rain cloud . . . and that's all we need.

Then there's Rockwell's own face, which we see twice (sort of). Now, I'm not big on portraits because I usually don't know their subjects, but I could gaze for hours at the self-portraits of artists I know. There is a way of making stuff up about the truth that is not actually lying--and is, in fact, even more honest--and it is perfectly captured in a self-portrait's enigmatic gaze. The second painting's easel, mirror and other props are charmingly funny, but they are also distracting. While they make clever frames-within-frames, they obscure the real subject rather than show him off.

Winner: The Three Umpires--because the man who could communicate volumes with a single facial expression totally held back when it came to his own.

Image Sources: a) Breaking Home Ties, b) The Runaway


Salome Ellen said...

I'm voting for The Runaway, but mostly because the dad in Breaking Home Ties looks too much like my dad (at least in attitude) for me to find that a comfortable image. I picture a "happier ending" for The Runaway.

Lesa said...

Breaking Home Ties-- so much emotion I can relate to as a child and as a parent. It is true once you become a parent, you know all the joys and heartbreaks your parents felt, grandparents felt-- back through the generations-- bittersweet from the father's view and the son's view-- even if the son doesn't know it yet.

Bee said...

I say Breaking Home Ties. There's this curiosity in the boy's face that has something about this. This real desire to see the world.

Paul Stilwell said...

The Runaway by a hundred yards!

The Triple Self-Portrait is actually a quadruple Self-Portrait, if one really wants to include the little piece of paper. But I guess Rockwell didn't title it that way. He did totally hold back. It's a rather Hitchcockian appearance.

Enbrethiliel said...


Ellen: I see what you mean about both pictures. The father's face is so full of emotion . . . and we can tell that he's probably not going to get the words out before his son gets on the bus or train.

And the "grown up" dog, as a clear departure from Rockwell's (too cute?) "boys and puppies" motif, is also bittersweet.

Lesa: Yes, the son is going to be in his father's place one day. And then he will understand this moment.

Perhaps the father is thinking not just of his son's youth, but of his own--and realising what his own father had felt when he had been the youth about to leave home. There are so many levels here!

Bee: It's all about the faces, isn't it? =D I love Rockwell's skill with facial expressions.

Stilwell: So now I have proof that someone read my long-winded, self-important commentary on the "Waiting for the Vet" Eight! It is much appreciated, I assure you!

The connection to Hitchcock is something I hadn't thought of before. If Rockwell had gone full Hitchcock--or as the young ones would say today, full Stan Lee--and made a fleeting cameo in one of his other paintings, we'd see that more clearly. But to make such an appearance in his own self-portrait is a little like false humility. Not his best move, in my opinion, even if it does make an amusing image.

FrB said...

I'm voting for The Runaway.

Dauvit Balfour said...

I'm going with Breaking Home Ties because I like the darker pallet and mood, and because it doesn't seem too long ago that that boy was me (I like to think I wasn't nearly so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but y'never know).

Irena @ This Miss Loves to Read said...

I'm voting for The Runaway, there's a whole story I see there.

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

Oh, I did well on round 1! Woo-hoo! For the new one...hmmm. I say The Runaway!

Sullivan McPig said...

Breaking Home Ties
The dog!!! Heartbreaking!
The Runaway looks too stilled, like a moment frozen in time and Breaking Home Ties is more alive in my opinion. Egh, I'm bad at explaining stuff like this.

Paul Stilwell said...

It is too frozen. There is a disconnect. The problem with it is the same problem I have with Girl before Mirror. Rockwell worked from photographs in which all the mannerisms and details were worked out the nth degree in a studio. It's actually kind of a let-down to see his photos after seeing his paintings.

Enbrethiliel said...


FrB: Thanks for voting. =)

Dauvit: It does have a dark mood, but it's still very much a morning painting, isn't it?

Irena: Oh, there is definitely a story in The Runaway--and one that is harder to figure out than the classic tale of Breaking Home Ties. The one who intrigues me the most in the story is the diner owner. Did he call the policeman, or is he just watching the scene unfold and having a fine time?

Carol: Thanks! Isn't it great when so many of your picks make it? =) My own favourite was eliminated, unfortunately . . .

Sully: You're so right about the dog, Sully. Even the dog is sad. And notice that it's a fully grown animal, not a puppy any longer, like the boy. There is no turning back time--and that's sad for everyone . . . even the boy who doesn't realise it yet.

Stilwell: I know what you mean about the photos being a huge letdown after the paintings. They almost seem to be of models trying to recreate the paintings.

Lesa said...

Seems like I read somewhere that Rockwell painted himself into several paintings-- or maybe I'm imagining things-- he did use his wives (or one wife several times?) as models-- and some of the same people over and over. His wife at the time is in the gossip painting-- I narrowed it down to two but couldn't decide for sure.

The transition from photo to painting fascinates me. The models all look so much more interesting in the paintings, don't they. Reminds me of real-life memories and photos-- sometimes they match and sometimes they don't. I loved seeing the photos-- but then I do like to look at old photos of strangers and wonder...

Enbrethiliel said...


I remember reading that when the camera was still very new technology and photographs were still a fad, people were predicting that they'd never catch on, if only because women would rather be "touched up" by portrait artists than captured in all their flawed glory by photographers. LOL!

Well, that was a failed prediction, aye? But it certainly explains why airbrushing and other Photoshop tricks were an inevitable development. =P