By Wally Kennedy
BENTONVILLE, Ark. —
The middle school children sat quietly in front of the painting.
“What do you notice about this painting?” asked Lori Lincks, an art educator with the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
A student asked: “Is that a halo?”
Lincks explained to the students from Poteau, Okla., that Norman Rockwell’s iconic image of “Rosie the Riveter” was inspired by an image of the prophet Isaiah painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo in 1509.
Rockwell had posed his model, a 19-year-old Vermont woman who was a telephone operator near where he lived, to match the image. And like Isaiah, she would be given a halo.
“Rockwell understood his place in popular culture of the time,” said Kevin Murphy, Crystal Bridges curator of American art. “He understood that he had been adopted as an interpreter of the American dream, and he wanted his work to engage in the larger tradition of Western art, so he would put in references to great works of art through history.
“Sometimes they’re obvious; sometimes they’re not. It was a way for him to connect with great art of the past.”
When the image appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post on Memorial Day, May 29, 1943, it was quickly recognized by readers to be “Rosie the Riveter” from a popular song at the time about American women who had taken jobs in manufacturing to help the nation win World War II.
The painting that would become the illustration for the magazine’s cover depicts a woman with muscular arms taking her lunch break with a rivet gun on her lap. She wears a blue work shirt and coveralls, but her fingernails are painted. A compact sticks out from a pocket. Beneath her worn penny loafer is a copy of Adolf Hitler’s manifesto, “Mein Kampf.”
“It’s not only an image of defiance by a working class American, it’s an image of disdain,” Murphy said. “You think you are going to conquer us? I don’t think so.”
The Rockwell painting, part of the Crystal Bridges collection in Bentonville, is a regular stop on the museum’s educational tour for children.
Visitors to the museum, through May 27, can get a much larger exposure to Rockwell’s career as an illustrator and painter with “American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell.” The traveling exhibition features 50 original Rockwell paintings and a complete set of his 323 Saturday Evening Post covers.
“The exhibit features all of the images you would expect in one space,” Murphy said. “But it also shows an amazing generational shift that Rockwell was a part of.”
That shift — the civil rights movement — is reflected in two dramatic paintings from the 1960s: “Murder in Mississippi,” an illustration for Look magazine about the 1964 murder of three young civil rights workers, and “The Problem We All Live With,” a painting about an African-American girl in New Orleans being escorted to school by U.S. marshals. Unlike his magazine illustrations that tended to idealize the American experience, these paintings exposed a troubling side to that experience.
Mary Jane Detroyer, of New York City, who was visiting the museum, said she had seen a previous exhibit of Rockwell’s work but had not seen the images from the 1960s.
“It was the first time I had seen those,” she said. “They give you a much broader appreciation for the artist and for the man.”
Audrey Thomas, a Bella Vista resident transplanted from Chicago, said: “It was not a surprise to me to see those images. The civil rights movement was a sad, sad time.”
The exhibition also includes several well-known images, including “Triple Self-Portrait” from 1960, “Girl at Mirror” from 1954 and “The Art Critic” from 1955.
Also on view in the Crystal Bridges Library are letters and manuscripts belonging to Rockwell that are part of the library collection. The materials will be rotated throughout the run of the exhibition. They include a series of five letters between Rockwell and journalist David Cusick, in which they discuss topics ranging from photography to Rockwell meeting folk musician Bob Dylan at Woodstock, N.Y.
WHILE ADMISSION TO CRYSTAL BRIDGES is free, tickets are required for the “American Chronicles” exhibition, organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. Tickets are complimentary for museum members and $12 for nonmembers. Youth admission is free.