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Norman Rockwell and Faith

Published: October 8, 2015

My grandfather has been called a “nonbeliever.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Norman Rockwell didn’t go to church as an adult because of his early church experiences as a boy, but he was always very respectful of and moved by religion. He had his own quiet faith.

His parents were Episcopalian and deeply religious. My grandfather was forced to go to church and participate as a choirboy at every church the family attended. He and his brother, Jarvis, were forbidden to play with their toys on Sunday — they weren’t even allowed to read the funny papers. If his mother — who was a hypochondriac and a bit of a hysteric — wasn’t feeling well enough to go to church, the family would sing hymns at home. But most of all, it was the “underside of church life” which revealed itself in those formative years and left Pop with lasting impressions that stayed with him and forever affected his relationship to church, faith, and his outlook on life.

As a choirboy, Norman Rockwell was required to sing at four services on Sunday and rehearse four times a week, including a dress rehearsal every Friday night. He remembered each of his choirmasters vividly. One was a tyrant who bullied and threatened the boys to make them sing like “little angels.” He would shoot the hymnbooks off the top of the piano at them with remarkable precision when they sang off pitch or an incorrect melodic phrase. Another choirmaster would come to rehearsals drunk.

Pop recalled the sexton swearing and grunting as he polished the altar cross with a dirty cloth. He remembered having to dress up in Spanish-American War uniforms to participate in holiday parades. As the smallest boy he would have to self-consciously march all by himself carrying a wooden gun at the very end, the little lone caboose — “the high private in the rear rank,” his father used to say. The man in the motorcar behind him would prod him with a “cowcatcher” to keep him in step. As humiliating as this was for Pop, can’t you just see it as one of his paintings?

Once he was trapped in the belfry with some of the other boys when they accidentally were locked in by the sexton. They had been teasing the girls from a nearby wayward home. It was hours before anyone understood that their screams and waves were not playful hellos but cries for help.

On top of everything else, he and his brother had to walk through a slum with rocks in their hands to get to church and were taunted by gangs of boys and the drunks that would sometimes lurch out at them. In Mamaroneck the church paid Pop $1.50 each week, but his mother made him return the money—something that really irked him, even many years later. That seemed very unfair to my grandfather — he felt he had earned it.

You can begin to get an idea of someone’s faith by reading their personal letters and observing what items they surround themselves with. My grandfather would sometimes sign his notes with “God bless us all.” It is interesting to note that Pop placed two Madonnas in their own special niches in his studio. One overlooked where he painted, the other was by the door over the sofa that he would sometimes take naps on. One of those Madonnas is a hand-carved statue from Peru. He also had a Buddha from Siam. He had a phonograph in his studio at one point and would sing along with a recording of hymns at the top of his lungs all by himself.

Saying Grace, The Saturday Evening Post, November 24, 1951 © SEPS

Saying Grace, The Saturday Evening Post, November 24, 1951
© SEPS

Saying Grace is perhaps my grandfather’s most beloved painting. He painted it in 1951 for the Thanksgiving cover of The Saturday Evening Post. A woman in Philadelphia wrote him about seeing a Mennonite family saying grace in an automat. The image really expresses my grandfather’s attitude — curious, respectful, and accepting but also suggesting that that kind of religion is something of the past. He placed the scene in a shabby railroad restaurant instead of an automat — my grandfather loved the romance of train stations, transition points of many hellos and goodbyes, arrivals and departures, a story in each.

The myriad and clarity of detail in the painting is a wonder and each one is carefully chosen. There is a quiet order in the midst of chaos: the variety of baggage, each person with a different coat and hat — a unique visual identity — the tableware, the cups of coffee. The newspaper in the lower left-hand corner grounds the painting with a sense of time marching forward, just as the background outside the window speaks of the industrial progress that keeps driving forward. Yet the carpetbag beside the old woman speaks of a very different time, the umbrella indicates impending rain explaining the slightly gloomy overcast light that Pop chose. He could have made it a sunny day with a tree and a nice neighborhood outside the window. Instead there is a deeper, silent meaning to this image, which I think can be missed.

The focus of the painting is the boy — a symbol of the innocence and purity of childhood — in the middle of the crushed cigarettes and the debris on the floor, and all the older men who have wised up to life or rather, by their world-weary faces, it seems life has schooled them the way life often does. The boy is the only one with his jacket off. The white shirt draws the viewer’s attention to him. My grandfather understood the beauty and vulnerability of the nape of a child’s neck as any parent certainly does. The old woman is the symbol of a bygone era. Her white scarf ties the two together visually just as their aligned body language does; the boy leans toward her and their faith. Their clothing is out-of-date. Pop bounces light off of the evenly placed fork and knife at the bottom of the picture and that reflection leads the eye once again to the boy and the old woman. The various stares also draw the focus towards them. His cut-off signature playfully mirrors and balances the cut-off “restaurant” sign in the window.

“The people around them were staring, some surprised, some puzzled, some remembering their own lost childhood, but all respectful. If you actually saw such a scene in a railroad station, some of the people staring at the old woman and the boy would have been respectful, some indifferent (probably a majority), some insulting and rude, and perhaps a few would have been angry. But I didn’t see it that way. I just naturally made the people respectful. The picture is not absolutely true to life; it’s not a photograph of an actual scene but the scene as I saw it.” —Norman Rockwell in My Life as an Illustrator

The man posing with the cigarette was Don Winslow, who studied with Pop at the art school my grandfather organized one summer in Vermont. Winslow remained in Vermont afterwards, living in the one-room schoolhouse on the green and acting sometimes as Pop’s assistant. He was talented but troubled. The man next to him is my Uncle Jarvis. Gene Pelham, one of Pop’s photographic assistants, is the man with the paper and cigar.

My grandfather’s favorite poem really says all you need to know about his faith:

Abou Ben Adhem by Leigh Hunt

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw — within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom—
An angel writing in a book of gold.
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
‘What writest thou?’ — The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, ‘The names of those who love the Lord.’
‘And is mine one?’ said Abou. ‘Nay, not so,’
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still; and said, ‘I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men.’

The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blest,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.

Perhaps we can all take a cue from my grandfather — it is far more important to respect someone else’s faith than to judge and condemn them for it. Goodwill toward one another is the compass he followed.

Blessings,

Abigail

P.S. It is interesting to note that when the painting was reproduced on the SEP cover, significant portions of the painting were cut off — the faces of the two men on the left and the “U” of the “restaurant” sign in the window in addition to more details on the right were left out. The color was also changed from a sepia-toned theme to a brighter tone with more blue in it. Pop used to complain about this — his work would sometimes be noticeably changed from the original. I believe the fact that his work was seen in reproductions and not in the original form for so many years is one of the main reasons my grandfather’s work was undervalued for so long. The reproductions simply don’t come close to capturing the clarity of detail, technique and color tone.

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  • I love Norman Rockwell…have since I was a little girl…I am now 84

  • Stan The Man

    Now the Episcopal Church is loaded with Flakes !

  • The paragraphs preceding your wonderful analysis of ‘Saving Grace’ surely had to have been very painful for you to have learned about in the first place, much less write about in this feature, Abigail. I found it horrifying and shocking. It was mental, physical, emotional child abuse of the highest order. The fact it happened over a century ago doesn’t lessen the severity of it at all.

    It’s further testament to your grandfather’s strength (and I’d like to think God’s will) that he didn’t have PTSD, panic attacks and more scars during his life as a result of this. The atrocities throughout history to the present day that occur in the name of religion never cease to be mind boggling. Thank you for sharing this dark, painful part of Rockwell’s childhood as well as that beautiful poem he loved so much.

    ‘Saying Grace’ was already a personal favorite, but having your insights makes me appreciate it all the more; the comments about the boy’s white shirt, the old woman’s clothing and the cut off signature to cite three examples.

    I think I read somewhere that the elderly woman passed away shortly after this painting was done, before the issue came out. It may have been in one of Diana Denny’s features here some years back; not sure.

    It’s great having you back after a summer hiatus! I remember your saying you wanted to go to the National Museum of American Illustration in Newport, Rhode Island. Hopefully you DID get to go, and were really able to take your time to enjoy it without any time constraints other than when it opened and closed.