A recent article in the Times about the rising value of Norman Rockwell paintings caught my attention. At one time Rockwell was largely reviled by the art world, his paintings thought of as slick shtick, with no real ‘there’ there. But when an artist’s painting sells for 9 million dollars, as a Rockwell recently did, the critics take notice. With a recent biography the quiet Norman Rockwell has been in the cultural eye of late, with a series of articles, TV and radio spots, and a growing interest in his paintings in the art world. Who knows? I wouldn’t be surprised if one day in the near future the critics are talking about him as a 20th century American master.
Of course that is what the rest of us would have said all along. Perhaps not articulated, but it was what we felt when we looked at his depictions of small town American life. The plain folk, engaged in daily tasks like painting fences and walking to church, or playing ball in the yard, saying grace in a diner or serving a Thanksgiving turkey. Like all great art, Rockwell’s paintings capture something both familiar and mythic, the intimate moments of our lives, the smallest details of our neighbors and neighborhoods, somehow even the values and ideals we live by. But at the same time the sense that there is something greater at work here, a shared destiny and community that is all around us, that we are a part of! – but that we too easily forget in our day to day lives. A wise literary critic once remarked that reading the paper will tell you what happened yesterday, while reading great literature will tell you what always happens. Rockwell’s paintings somehow managed to do both.
I walked through a Rockwell painting yesterday afternoon. My neighborhood, a leisurely stroll with the pooch. Deep blue skies broken by wisps of cloud. Just enough of a wind to make things interesting, to ruffle the leaves of the oaks and maples that line the streets and break up the yards, their roots cracking the sidewalks. It was a quiet space that the dog and I walked through, almost unseen, but the noise of day to day life was all around us. Children playing a game of touch football in a back yard, or riding bikes up the street. The trimming of bushes and raking of grass. A lawn mower in the distance, humming away at its task. Families on porches, enjoying the late afternoon sunshine, sipping beer or iced tea, talking quietly, observing the beauty of the day, or the twists and turns of life, anticipating summer and its slower pace. American flags hung from flag poles, stiffened by the wind, Old Glory, crimson, white, and indigo.
In many ways this is precisely what Memorial Day is about. The sacrifices we are called to remember this weekend were made to preserve this neighborhood, this style of life, the quiet and calm, the tree lined streets and children on bikes. In my own neighborhood and so many others the scenes that Rockwell so skillfully and subtly and deftly committed to canvas. As we enjoy one we should not forget the other. As we remember one, we should do so with gratitude for the sacrifices that have been made for us all.