This spring, Norman Rockwell Museum staff enjoyed the pleasure of a visit from Dr. Susan Birns, Professor of Sociology/Anthropology/Social Work, and the enthusiastic young schoars in her American Family class at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA). The group joined Curator of Education Tom Daly and Deputy Director/Chief Curator to explore the power of published art and the messages about gender roles and family life reflected in the illustration art of the mid-twentieth century. After their visit, the class took inspiration from the works on view to complete an assignment from Dr. Birns, who invited them to analyze Rockwell’s art within the context of their studies. We appreciate the opportunity to share the thoughts of five of Dr. Birns outstanding students, including Lindsay Roy, Gregory James, Mary Ferrara, Brittany Galipeau, and Meghan Maguire. We know you’ll enjoy their comments too.
Rockwell’s painting named “The Runaway” shows a male police officer and a young boy at a restaurant sitting on the bar stools talking to the male waiter. A man was known for protection, not women. Nowadays there are quite a few police officers who are women, but in the 1950s there were none. Also, the waiter is a man, not a woman. I believe this shows that women didn’t work like men did. Another gender role that I saw was the child that ran away was a boy, not a girl. I think the boy running away shows his independence and that he is growing up. A girl would be expected to stay home and grow up to be like her mom. (By Lindsay Roy)
Norman Rockwell is often regarded as the creator of the classic American family image. His paintings reflect an idealized vision of American family life, including gender roles. In his painting “Walking to Church”, Rockwell paints a typical 1950s family (mother, father, three children) on their way to church on Sunday morning. The females wear pink, while the males wear gray. Additionally, the wife is walking a couple of steps behind her husband. (By Gregory James)
“Marriage License (1955)” is also a great example of the gender roles of the time. This painting shows a couple: an older man and younger woman, signing their marriage license. The strong and tall man looks over his fragile fiancee’s shoulder as she signs her part, as if to oversee and correct any mistakes made. The woman is robed in a bright, cheery, and innocent looking yellow dress and wearing uncomfortable high heels that just barely lift her up high enough to see what she is doing. The person working in the office is male, showing that women didn’t work outside of the home. This painting shows that the men were in charge and the women were thought of as innocent and subordinate. (By Mary Ferrara)
Norman Rockwell was a well known painter in the 1950s. He did many magazine covers during this time. He often painted these covers the way he viewed life. The way life should be. “Freedom From Want” depicted a traditional white family. The grandmother seemed to have done all of the work in putting together this great meal while the rest of the family sat and talked among themselves. At the head of the table was a man, which also shows gender roles in the family. Norman Rockwell painted life the way he wanted to see it, not the way it actually was. “Freedom From Want” depicts the specific gender roles men and women had in society. (By Brittany Galipeau)
Norman Rockwell’s painting “Family Doctor” portrayed some of the gender roles at the time. At an appointment, the mother sits holding the child comfortingly, while the father stands over her. It appears he has given the seat to her while he maintains his authority over the situation. The doctor himself is a man and is clearly running his practice from home. The father maintains his stoic demeanor while the mother listens intently to advice it appears the doctor is giving. Rockwell painted images of what a family in the 1950s ideally looked like and created images people aspired to uphold. (By Meaghan Maguire).