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More Than Meets the Eye

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At first glance, the subject of this painting seems obvious—a self-portrait of the beloved cover artist at a loss for ideas. That’s how most historians describe the picture. He is, after all, staring at a blank canvas with the due date looming. But here, as in most of Rockwell’s artwork, there’s more to the painting than initially meets the eye.

The real issue Rockwell was subtly illustrating was not deadline pressure, but the challenges of parenting. Notice anything wrong with the scene? Look closely around the artist’s feet. His brush handles are lying in clumps of paint, his sketches are underfoot, his empty matchbook is on the floor behind him, and his maulstick (used to support the hand while painting) is beneath the chair and out of reach. No wonder one wing of his collar appears to be about to take flight! Why were his tools in disarray? He had three sons under the age of 8, that’s why.

Norman turned to his wife, Mary, for guidance. Should he ban them from his studio? Mary, a former schoolteacher, said no. Instead, she suggested teaching the boys a lesson in responsibility using that old standby, flashcards. She asked Norman to draw his art instruments positioned in their correct places in the studio. Norman would use the flashcards to teach the boys to be more responsible with his equipment.

Although not a permanent solution, this gentle intervention was a step in the right direction, turning what had been an ongoing annoyance into a fun activity for the painter and his sons. Ultimately Rockwell commemorated the lesson by painting the “before” scenario shown here, in which the artist is unable to work in a studio that had been torn asunder by three small boys.

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