ROCKWELL’S AMERICAN UTOPIA (GRADES 8-12)

The significance of Rockwell’s vision of an “ideal” America. The idea of utopia within American thought.

OBJECTIVES

  • Students will develop critical thinking skills by analyzing the ideals presented in Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post imagery.
  • Students will study and reflect on the notion of an ideal society through investigation of utopian writings.
  • Students will articulate their own ideas of “ideal” society through written text and collage.

MATERIALS

  • Postcard versions of Saturday Evening Post covers,
  • Internet access.
  • Excerpts from texts that describe ideal societies: Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, descriptions of Eden from The Book of Genesis,etc.
  • Text versions of the preamble of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
  • Magazines for collage images.
  • Disposable cameras.

CURRICULUM LINKS

Many contemporary songs deal with utopian visions. Especially in the hip-hop genre, musicians are writing songs that describe a perfect world. Ask students to find examples of utopian sentiment in the music they listen to. Assemble lyric sheets and analyze these contemporary versions of the ideal in the same terms used to critique Rockwell’s imagery: What values are being appealed to? Are there any problems inherent in the ideal presented in the music? etc.

Travel magazines often portray exotic destinations as utopian. Using a selection of images from such publications, explore ways in which other places and (especially) other cultures are sentimentalized or stereotyped in an effort to appeal to the buying public. Give careful considerations to representations of people from these different cultures and the motives of advertisers, discussing ways in which advertising a utopia can actually misinform the viewer’s perceptions of people different from ourselves. (A similar activity could be structured to address film representations of foreign cultures as utopian).

Saturday Evening Post Covers

TIME

  • Approximately three 45-minute classes for analysis of images, examination of utopian texts, and definition of the assignment. Allow additional class time for project work and peer evaluation as desired.

PLAN

1. Investigating Begin the lesson by breaking the class up into small groups, giving each one a postcard of a Saturday Evening Post cover. Ask them to analyze the image and answer the question: How does Norman Rockwell create an ideal image of America? Guiding questions might include:

  1. What or who is the subject of the painting? What is the theme? How are these ideas presented? What details give you clues?
  2. What kinds of values does Rockwell appeal to? How does he accomplish this artistically?
  3. How is this image similar to others you have seen by Normal Rockwell?
  4. What aspect of American life does he present in the image? What impression does this give? What emotions is he trying to inspire?
  5. Do you think this was a realistic representation of America at that time period? Why or why not?

Have the each group select a presenter who explains the findings to the whole class. Create a class list of the ideals presented in each image to demonstrate the pervasiveness of these themes in Rockwell’s work.

2.Defining Utopia Present the concept of utopia to the class, the time periods when utopian thought was important and its relation to American idealism. Examine the selected utopian texts as a class, listing in each case the specifics of the ideals presented: What does each author consider important to the construction of an ideal society? To suggest the presence of utopian idealism in American thought, read and discuss the ideals presented in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Discuss ways in which these and other American ideals appear in our culture.

Then ask the class: Does Norman Rockwell present a utopian vision of America? Discuss whether or not this sort of America ever actually existed in such a nostalgic, innocent form. Have them return attention to the original cover and contrast the article titles with the theme of Rockwell’s painting. (If you wish, have students find information on historical events during Rockwell’s lifetime.) Guiding questions might include:

  1. What was America really like at this time period? What stories were people interested in?
  2. How does Rockwell’s imagery compare with the realities of his time period? What does the text on the Post covers suggest about America at the time that he painted?
  3. Do you think he was an idealist? Why or why not?
  4. What do you think influenced his vision? What outside factors would he have to take into consideration? How would the place or town he worked in influence his presentation of the ideal?
  5. What is your opinion of Rockwell’s utopian vision of America? Does this appeal to you Why or why not? Do you think his vision of America is positive or limited? Why?

3. Constructing Utopia Having examined and critiqued Rockwell’s utopian vision, have students construct their own ideal America. As individuals or in small groups, have students identify their criteria for structuring the ideal society. Review the earlier readings to establish the elements of a society that must be included within their plans. (Let these elements become the criteria for their peer evaluations.) Suggest different forms the written description might take: travelogue (as in Francis Bacon), story, essay, dialogue (as in Plato), government charter, myth, etc. To get them started, offer these and other guiding questions:

  1. What kind of society would you like to live in? What structures would it include?
  2. What would your utopia look like?
  3. What rules or laws would it have?
  4. How would you handle social change?
  5. How would you provide for dissent, political opposition, free speech?
  6. How would you handle differences between cultures?
  7. How would it differ from the society/culture/ context you live in now?

Having written their descriptions of the ideal American society, ask students to create a visual representation of this utopia, using photographs they take and collage elements from magazines. Their work should be a symbolic or literal representation of the ideals they have laid out. As assessment, compare their visions with those of Rockwell, discuss the ways in which their “ideal” reflects the values of their present culture, and critique the utopia according to the criteria established earlier as a group.

THE SATURDAY EVENING POST

Anne Knutson

“When The Saturday Evening Post arrived, I would sit on the stair landing, and with the north light coming through the door there was enough illumination to study every detail of Norman Rock- well’s covers. Sitting with the Post in my hands provided one of my most favorite childhood memories.”1
-Ellen Baise, Norman Rockwell Museum guide

For virtually three-quarters of the century, Norman Rockwell captured the attention of millions of Americans with his 322 Saturday Evening Post covers and countless other illustrations and advertisements. While he is one of the most recognized American artists of the twentieth century, scholars have yet to examine his achievement. Consider that for over seventy years, every week at approximately the same time, millions of households across the country received The Saturday Evening Post. The magazine would be read in living rooms, kitchens, bathrooms, and bedrooms, and was touched, ripped, dog-eared, stained, carefully collected, or heedlessly thrown away by a great many Americans. The magazine’s casual and shifting viewing context within the home and beyond it-to doctors’ offices, barbershops, and dentists’ waiting rooms-profoundly influences our understanding of Rockwell’s Post covers. Their familiarity contributes to the problem that the Norman Rockwell Museum guides have with visitors touching paintings in the galleries. The way most people were introduced to Rockwell images-close up, handheld-makes them think that the conventional rules for looking at fine art do not apply.

Indeed, Rockwell’s paintings were not meant to be experienced within the formal and controlled environment of a museum. On a frequent and regular basis, millions of Americans brought Rockwell’s art into their homes-viewing his Post covers while seated in their favorite chairs, surrounded by personal belongings in the company of their families. This particular reception of Rockwell’s art affected the way the images were interpreted by encouraging audiences to impose their own narratives on the pieces. The images themselves also encourage this. Because they are frequently vague about time and place, the pictures easily adapt themselves to the attitudes, beliefs, and situations of individual viewers. Subscribers could look at a Post cover and feel that they were looking at themselves or their neighbors-the naughty child, the doctor, the babysitter, the dentist, the grandfather, the mom and dad. It wasn’t until later in Rockwell’s career-the 1950s and 1960s-that he began to paint magazine covers of the famous, of “them.” For the bulk of his career, Rockwell’s magazine covers were about “us.”

The intimate contexts in which people saw Rockwell’s covers, together with the commercial circumstances that guided his creative process, contributed enormously to the popular appeal of the artist’s Post covers. Thus it is important to explore how the institutional imperatives of The Saturday Evening Post both shaped and were shaped by Rockwell’s aesthetic. The Post’s innovation was in reaching a mass audience previously ignored by established highbrow magazines such as Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly. It was one of the first magazines to create a national market of readers unified by their similar patterns of consumption. Indeed, the Curtis Publishing Company, which owned the Post, was one of the first advertisement-driven media corporations. Because the advertising space, not the subscription price of the magazine, paid expenses and determined profits, one of the preeminent goals of the Post was to find and cultivate a broad audience possessing disposable income. The Post editors repeatedly used formulas that cut across class and gender lines, such as the ever-popular Horatio Alger story, in which both men and women, regardless of class, achieved financial success through hard work and determination. In doing so, the Post helped to define a huge new market-the emerging middle class-and identified that market’s needs for its advertisers, who then tailored their advertisements to fit both the magazine’s goals and its readers’ needs.2

These formulas for fiction, articles, editorials, advertisements, and illustrations were established by the first permanent editor of the Post, George Horace Lorimer. The most powerful and deeply involved of all the Post editors, Lorimer took charge of the magazine in 1898 and played a central role in establishing its mass-market dominance through 1936. And because of Lorimer’s early efforts, the Post continued to influence American cultural life until the magazine ceased publication in 1969. Under Lorimer’s tenure,the Post enjoyed a public influence unrivaled by movies, radio, or other magazines. In 1908, The Saturday Evening Post had a weekly circulation of one million and a readership of some ten million; by 1929, those numbers had doubled. The unparalleled dominance of the Post gave it an unusually powerful opportunity to shape the beliefs and attitudes of Americans.3 Indeed, it was one of the first periodicals to create a truly mass market in the United States. Not even the mass-media giants of our own time enjoy a comparable dominance.4

Jan Cohn, who has meticulously chronicled the early history of the Post, wrote that Lorimer saw the United States as an “unformed, unassimilated nation that lacked a unifying consciousness of Americanism.” Accordingly, he set out to “create America” in the pages of the Post, delivering it to audiences week after week as “a model against which they could shape their lives.” Lorimer realized his goal of using the Post to unify readers when they simultaneously received and “came to know, to share in, and to talk to one another about the stories, the articles, the illustrations. . . . To read the Post was to become American, to participate in the American experience.”5 And in 1916, when Rockwell began selling paintings to the Post, his covers became the visual expression of Lorimer’s ideas.

For over a quarter of a century, The Saturday Evening Post was unequalled in crafting and mediating a set of attitudes and beliefs that “explained and defined Americanism.”6 The magazine was a major source of political, social, and economic information about the United States and the world. The articles, fiction, illustrations, and advertisements functioned as how-to guides for living in twentieth-century America: they taught readers how to make sense of the vast and rapid changes in their new century; they explained how modern consumers should live and work in a society reshaped by technological advances and mass communication.7

Throughout the changes of the twentieth century, the magazine kept its readers current. It gave them the latest information on fashion and recommended which washing machine or television set to buy. It educated housewives on the best ways to care for their homes and families, and it provided business advice to men, promoting in particular the ideal of the self-made man. In soothing, clarifying prose, Post writers explained complicated new inventions. For example, in “Look Ma! There Goes Our House,” the reader finds an accessible account of the new technology that allowed engineers to move houses.8 Post writers also educated their readers about international and domestic politics, impassioned them through vivid coverage of sports events, and indulged their fantasies through serialized stories about romance, adventure, and history. The 1954 story “The Cradle Robber,” for instance, takes the reader to rustic Maine in the summertime, where a handsome widower falls in love with the beautiful nanny he hired to take care of his two children.9 Like Rockwell’s cover images, this type of fiction spirited readers away from the hectic exigencies of twentieth-century life into the carefree days of another realm.

The Post celebrated traditional, old-fashioned values such as hard work, thrift, and common sense; it argued that these virtues were crucial to success in a twentieth-century consumer society-all the while deflecting the contradictions between thrift and consumption, and between hard work and the new, laborsaving devices they advertised. All in all, the Post removed the jarring and frightening new aspects of the events, products, and rituals of the twentieth century and presented them in comforting and familiar ways. This is one of the many strategies the Post adopted to create its own American ideology, and the paradigm strongly shaped and influenced Rockwell’s imagery.

Lorimer, who approved every article, short story, editorial, and illustration before it went to press, had a great deal of control over Rockwell’s Post images. Rockwell’s own description of his meetings with Lorimer reveals how the editor’s ambitions and goals for the Post determined which images would become covers:

He never fidgeted over a decision or told me to leave the cover so that he could decide later whether or not to accept it. The first glance, its first impact was his criterion. “If it doesn’t strike me immediately,” he used to say, “I don’t want it. And neither does the public. They won’t spend an hour figuring it out. It’s got to hit them.” He rarely asked me to make minor changes-a red cap instead of a green, more smile on a kid. The cover was either good or bad.10

In his autobiography, Rockwell described how he caught on to Lorimer’s decision-making process and figured out how to “rig” these meetings so that he could control which sketches Lorimer would pick.11

His Post covers, then, resulted from a continual process of negotiation between artist and editor. Moreover, it can be argued that Lorimer’s vision of a unifying Americanism shaped not only Rockwell’s choice of subject matter, but also his style. In the 1920s, propelled by a need for change, Rockwell went to Europe, where he experimented with modernist styles of painting. When he returned to the United States, he took one of these paintings to Lorimer, who rejected it, deflating Rockwell and dampening his enthusiasm for further modernist experiments.12 While Rockwell’s cover images were chosen by Lorimer, the success of Rockwell’s work-his covers sold more magazines than those of other artists-may very well have reinforced Lorimer’s determination to continue his ideological course.13 Rockwell’s cover images not only epitomized the magazine’s ideology, but also sometimes took good- humored jabs at the very forms of modern mass communication celebrated in the magazine.

The twentieth century saw the invention of brand-new technologies that produced such things as automobiles, televisions, and space travel. The century also saw dramatic changes in the way wars were fought and presidential elections staged. Furthermore, there were tremendous upheavals in the arts and in race relations. Rockwell took these subjects and the impact they had on ordinary Americans as the focus of much of his art. Like the stories in the Post, Rockwell’s pictures wed the familiar and traditional to the unfamiliar and contemporary, creating reassuring visual narratives about change. Many of these images were meant to suggest that cherished values are not necessarily destined to disappear with the onslaught of new influences. Rather, those values can help guide us through the newness and keep us grounded in the familiar.

For example, The Law Student (Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, page 146), the February 19, 1927, Post cover celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, features a young man in a grocer’s storeroom hunched over a cracker barrel, the surface of which is scratched and scraped with use; he is reading law books by the light of a kerosene lamp, much as Lincoln might have done. Posted above the figure are familiar photos of Lincoln by Mathew Brady.14 The edges of the photos and other bills and cards tacked on the wall are torn, bent, and yellowing with age. The whole scene, with its fading brown and beige color scheme, has an old-fashioned look with no obvious markers of twentieth-century life. The Post was reminding its 1927 audience that the qualities  Lincoln represented-industry, thrift, determination, honesty-are timeless; indeed they were the important attributes that would help American youth succeed in the twentieth century. Reinforcing this visual homily, many of the themes of the short stories and articles in that issue explored the idea of hard work bringing success to anyone of any class or gender.15

Lincoln, the Horatio Alger model of rags-to-riches achievement, was the archetype of the small-town man who, without the benefit of formal education and through sheer determination and industriousness, created his own fame.16 The picture’s indeterminate time and setting reinforce the implicit message of the Horatio Alger myth-that anyone can prosper if they are industrious, honest, and thrifty. Moreover, the cards and pictures pinned above the student’s head recall the late-nineteenth-century American artist John F. Peto’s office-board and card-rack still-lifes, which frequently included pictures of Lincoln.17 Rockwell’s allusion to Peto strengthens the picture’s celebration of the past and tradition.18 The Post used many anniversaries of famous Americans-Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin-as focal points to bring its audience together in a national community. The frequency with which the Post relied on these figures from the past suggests a mass-media strategy to forge a widely popular version of American history that could stand as a buffer against the widespread immigration, devastating wars, and vast economic and political shifts of the times. Like the articles, fiction, and editorials of the Post, Rockwell’s images used the past to represent hope, reassurance, and belief at a time of dizzying change and an uncertain future.

Rockwell’s New Television Antenna (Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, page 148), “painted in the peak year of the television bonanza-in 1949, when 100,000 sets were sold in a single hectic week,” exemplifies how the Post introduced and humored its readers into modern technological society.19 A workman perches on the roof of a weathered Victorian house installing a TV antenna. The owner of the house leans out of the window shouting approval as he points to a shadowy figure that has just materialized on the television screen inside. At a time when old urban neighborhoods like this one were being razed and replaced by modern commercial buildings-derivations of the modernist concrete and glass box-it is telling that Rockwell chose this timeworn architectural setting for a new televisionset.20 Moreover, the broken millwork on the gable, the holes in the decorative siding, the bricks missing from the chimney, and the wartime Red Cross flag in the window strongly suggest the passing of an era.21 Other than the television and antenna, there are no markers of modernity in the image. The house, not the television, is the focus of New Television Antenna. The architecture wraps the television into something worn, weary, and familiar, blunting the newness of the technology. Rockwell deliberately used the familiar pyramidal composition of traditional religious paintings to construct his house, with the antenna taking the place of the cross at the top. He used the stability of this triangular form to invest the television with a sense of tradition. These reassuring signifiers of tradition and the past take the edge off Rockwell’s witty observation that mass communication was usurping the power of religion in twentieth-century American culture-the antenna towers over the church spire in the right background of the picture.

Although the setting for the cover illustration is identified in a caption as the Adams Street neighborhood of Los Angeles, there are no signs in the image itself marking the place as California. The house could stand in virtually any town or city across the United States, since all were being transformed by television technology. A letter from one Post reader in Deerfield, Illinois, responding to New Television Antenna, suggests how people across the country identified with Rockwell’s images:

Your November 5th Rockwell cover gave a vivid portrayal of the new overtaking the old. It brought to my mind an interesting revelation to our small town.

To passers-by on our main street the old frame house was forlorn. Shrubbery had overgrown the yard; the weather-beaten clapboard lacked shape as well as paint. . . . The front steps had long ago rotted away. . . . What was the great surprise of at least 75% of the town’s population to awake one morning to see the unmistakable “cross” of life (television dingus) fastened to the battered gable.

It seems that one of the town’s leading tradesmen has always occupied the rear of the structure-unobviously until this “sign of the times” appeared on the roof top.22

An inspection of this November issue of the Post reveals a plethora of advertisements that wed the old with the new as a sales device. An Alcoa aluminum ad compares the twelve-dollar-an-ounce price of aluminum in the mid-nineteenth century to the current price of seventeen-cents-a-pound, underscoring how new technology has made this compound cheaper, and marveling at all the farm roofs in America made of this “precious metal.” Kaywoodie Pipe Maker features a color reproduction of the March 1897 boxing match in which Bob Fitzsimmons knocked out “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, accompanied by the text “Our Pipes were favorites then as they are today.”

The most interesting of these is a full-page advertisement for Du Mont Televisions. It features a large television encased in a sleek modern box set against a gilded eighteenth-century neoclassical paneled wall. Two women in evening gowns sit on eighteenth- century French salon chairs accompanied by two men in tuxedos-all watching a diva on television. A delicate neoclassical-style urn perches uncomfortably atop the modern box, heightening the contrast (and adding to the oddness of the image). Advertisers attempted to lend legitimacy and familiarity to their products through references to the past, but the wedding of the old and the new often yielded unexpected and strange results. As an advertising illustrator, Rockwell was familiar with this strategy and its pitfalls. Indeed, his cover images also functioned as advertisements in themselves, advertisements that sold the Post and routinely relied on contrasts between the old and the new. Unlike the hurried and frequently unskilled creations of advertising agencies, Rockwell’s images made brilliant use of the tensions inherent in opposites by dissolving them into humor.

The past offers not only a snug place of calm in a world shaken by change, but also a reassuring sense of stability through basic values that survive the constant pressures of twentieth-century life. In Girl at Mirror (Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, page 153), Rockwell explored how makeup assumed a central role in teen culture of the 1950s and became the most visible sign of a girl’s passage into womanhood.23 In the image, a young girl in a modest cotton slip slightly yellowed with age compares her features to those of movie star Jane Russell.24 The inevitable passing of time is Rockwell’s focus in this image. We know that his heroine is soon going to be changed forever when she leaves her doll and childish demeanor behind and fully embraces the cosmetics industry and Hollywood standards of beauty.

Yet Rockwell imbued this picture with many more signs of the past. The girl sits in a room that is cast in shadow and devoid of any markers of twentieth-century life other than the magazine, the lipstick, and the box of powdered rouge on the floor. The floor’s scratched surface revealing layers of old paint, the mirror’s worn gilt frame, the spindled legs of the ladderback chair-an early- American style piece-and even the discarded doll from her mother’s or grandmother’s childhood give the image an air of quaint- ness.25 The little girl’s hair is plaited and pinned up in an attempt to mimic Jane Russell’s glamorous bob, but the braids only make the girl look more old-fashioned.26 The slip, with its modest cut and ruffles of eyelet lace (echoed in the antique doll’s petticoat), is especially striking in its out-modedness when one considers that Jane Russell would have been wearing something sleek and sexy- the latest in fashion.

Even the composition alludes to the centuries-old pictorial tradition of a semi-nude female contemplating her youthful yet evanescent beauty in the mirror.27 The reassuring signs of the past and tradition outweigh those of the modern era-implying that old- fashioned values will bring the girl safely from the old world (childhood) into the new world (womanhood), just as those values will carry us safely into a new age.

Many women would have looked at this image and smiled to remember their first clumsy, self-conscious experiments with makeup. The visual signifiers of a past era and the vagueness of the details convey this act of remembering. Moreover, Rockwell deliberately erased signs that this scene takes place in a specific region or time, and he also eliminated clothing and furniture that might suggest a particular social class.28 In combination with the affordability of magazines and cosmetics at the time, this generality suggests that females from a wide variety of class and regional backgrounds could identify with the girl and the make- overs, great and small, that she faces.

It is no coincidence that Rockwell decided to depict this girl considering the effects of
cosmetics-products of a newly emerging mass-culture industry. The image is a fitting metaphor for readers of the Post considering whether to buy the mass-advertised goods in the pages of the magazine. The Post was a deliberate participant in shaping patterns of consumption as it and its advertisers attempted to reach more and more people. Yet the somber colors of the picture and the uncertainty of the child reveal not only her questioning of her own beauty but also possibly the artist’s own wistfulness-about the loss of innocence, about how the new mass products of the twentieth century propel us into change at an ever-more-rapid rate.

In order to fully understand the popularity of Rockwell and his covers for The Saturday Evening Post, it is crucial to consider how this new and powerful type of magazine shaped Rockwell’s art (and was, in turn, shaped by it). Lorimer and the Post, and Rockwell in his covers, tried to forge a national community based not on geography or class, but on an artificial ideal of what it meant to be American. This was not an America of the oppressed or the elite. Instead, the Post sought out, defined, and spoke to what we now call middle America. The Post’s and Rockwell’s America was one that was rooted so firmly in the ethics of the past that it could accommodate and internalize the changes of the twentieth century without being overwhelmed by them.

Rockwell’s images-with their deliberately nonspecific, vaguely old-fashioned settings and lack of obvious economic signifiers-could speak to this broad new base of Americans. His images mediated between an imagined traditional past and the great technological advances and social shifts of the new century. While Rockwell’s representations were obviously influenced by Lorimer’s goals, he was able to deftly join the past and the present in his own innovative ways. Drawing upon his knowledge of art history and his keen sense of everyday life, Rockwell frequently used humor, sentiment, and earnestness not only to smooth over the pitfalls inherent in this strategy that weds the old and the new, but also to enhance its power and impact. Further, Rockwell’s ordinary, familiar images had a particularly strong resonance precisely because of the prosaic manner in which they were regularly delivered to American homes. Finally, it is important to keep in mind that a Rockwell cover image was designed and used to sell three things to a newly defined public: the magazine itself; the goods advertised inside the magazine; and, perhaps most importantly, a vision of who we are and how we should be Americans.

Notes:
Special thanks to Elizabeth Thomas, Linda Merrill, H. Nichols B. Clark, and Jan Cohn for their thoughtful readings of various drafts of this essay.

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