Humility is necessary in the case of Norman Rockwell, because his work itself has become trite. We think we know the pictures, so we do not ever bother to look. If they are to do their work of prompting us to a fresh perspective, and helping us to recover the things that have become trite, we will need to actually attend to them.
G.K. Chesterton wrote, “We were talking about St. Peter…. You remember that he was crucified upside down. I’ve often fancied his humility was rewarded by seeing in death the beautiful vision of his boyhood. He also saw the landscape as it really is: with the stars like flowers, and the clouds like hills, and all men hanging on the mercy of God” (The Poet and the Lunatics, 14). You might say that if Chesterton’s fancy (or that of his character Gabriel Syme’s) is correct, St. Peter’s head-down crucifixion provided him with a proper vision of the world. Call it a “fresh perspective,” to borrow the title of Brandon Kralik’s painting. St. Peter saw all men hanging on the mercy of God—which is the way things actually are, even though he couldn’t see it before.
In his essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien called this freshness of perspective “recovery”:
Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness and familiarity—from possessiveness.
St. Peter’s change in perspective was wrapped up in unspeakably painful series of events, but (thank heavens) one need not be murdered in order to attain such a view. Sometimes all it takes is a rather minor change in one’s point of view, to make the familiar seem unfamiliar. Any parent has no doubt had the great pleasure of introducing a child to some beloved place or activity; in helping to point out the wonders of the new thing to the child, one is able to actually stop and notice them again, perhaps for the first time in a long time. One can recover these things through the process of teaching others to love them.
Tolkien argues that fairy stories offer another path to recovery. Other times it might simply sneak up on you:
Fairy-stories are not the only means of recovery, or prophylactic against loss. Humility is enough. And there is (especially for the humble) Mooreeffoc, or Chestertonian Fantasy. Mooreeffoc is a fantastic word, but it could be seen written up in every town in this land. It is Coffee-room, viewed from the inside through a glass door, as it was seen by Dickens on a dark London day; and it was used by Chesterton to denote the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle.
Chesterton’s mention of St. Peter’s crucifixion tells us from the outside about someone’s getting a fresh perspective (as does Kralik’s painting). But Tolkien argues not that Chesterton describes people getting a fresh perspective, but that he provides us with one. In reading Chesterton, says Tolkien, we are offered a chance at recovery, if we are properly humble. It’s not just description: It’s provision.
There has been a good deal written about how Chesterton manages to do this. Alison Milbank’s Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians is one of the more recent such studies, and well worth reading. This essay will not focus principally on Chesterton, though. Rather, I will briefly show that Norman Rockwell’s art is in some sense similar to Chesterton’s, in providing another opportunity for recovery, if we’re appropriately humble.
Humility is particularly necessary in the case of Norman Rockwell, because his work itself has become trite. We think we know the pictures, so we do not ever bother to look. If they are to do their work of prompting us to a fresh perspective, and helping us to recover the things that have become trite, we will need to actually attend to them.
Once we start to look at the pictures, we can see that they do give us a fresh perspective on the world. Another quick turn to Chesterton is called for. Consider how Chesterton describes Charles Dickens:
Herein is the whole secret of that eerie realism with which Dickens could always vitalize some dark or dull corner of London. There are details in the Dickens descriptions—a window, or a railing, or the keyhole of a door—which he endows with demoniac life. The things seem more actual than things really are. Indeed, that degree of realism does not exist in reality: it is the unbearable realism of a dream (Charles Dickens, 65).
Now, Chesterton claims that “this kind of realism can only be gained by walking dreamily in a place; it cannot be gained by walking observantly.” As an observation about Dickens, this seems fair enough to me. However, the last thing that can be said about Rockwell is that he went about unobservantly. So if his was an eerie realism like Dickens’s, as I contend, then it is possible to gain it through observation.
Here is how I think it worked with Rockwell. He was so hyper-observant that he raised the elements in his paintings to a kind of excess of existence, by way of painting each thing as if it were, magically, simultaneously and equally present to the viewer. This is not entirely unusual, but it isn’t the way painters have tended to work for quite some time. It is also, as it happens, closely aligned philosophically with traditional, scholastic, moderate realism. Let me explain.
In an essay on point of view in the arts (“On Point of View in the Arts”), Jose Ortega y Gasset divides up the history of art by considering how various painters have approached their mode of depiction. He starts by distinguishing two different ways of looking (not at paintings specifically, but at anything): We can look at things via proximate vision or via distant vision. This has less to do with the actual distance of the object we’re looking at than it has to do with how we are looking, and what that means. In proximate vision, we see one object at a time, so to speak: I look, say, at my coffee cup in front of me and focus my vision on that, and the rest of the objects on my desk—as well as the desk itself, and so forth—drop out of sight. Of course, it is not that I don’t see them at all. I do. But they fall out of the main picture, and sort of slink into the background. Proximate vision privileges one object among many. So when I look at things using proximate vision, I look at each afresh, moving from one to the next, seeing each, so to speak, from a separate point of view.
In distant vision, however, objects don’t come marked out in quite that way. When I use my distant vision, I see a scene as a whole, no one object having a privileged place in the visual image.
Ortega thinks art has been progressing since Giotto away from proximate vision and towards distant vision. The painter of proximate vision picks out each object he wishes to paint, and paints it in its own glorious independence. The “primitive” painter—the painter of proximate vision—then, necessarily includes multiple points of view in his painting: for each object is pictured from its own point of view. “The smallest figure, there in the distance, is as complete, spherical and detached as the most important. The painter seems to have gone to a distant spot where they are, and from near at hand to have painted them as distant.” In order for us to look at such paintings, we have no choice but to conform ourselves to the various points of view in question, and look at each object individually.
The painter doesn’t operate in a vacuum. The approach one takes to painting will be connected to many things, most importantly to an overall philosophical outlook (whether explicitly or only implicitly accepted).
In the time of Giotto, philosophy believed that the ultimate and definitive realities were individual substances. Examples given of such substances in the schools were: this horse, this man. Why did one believe to have discovered in these the ultimate metaphysical value? Simply because in the practical and natural idea of the world, every horse and every man seems to have an existence of his own, independent of other things and of the mind that contemplates them. The horse lives by himself, complete and perfect, according to his mysterious inner energy; if we wish to know him, our senses, our understanding must go to him and turn humbly, as it were, in his orbit. This, then, is the substantialist realism of Dante, a twin brother to the painting of bulk initiated by Giotto.
Needless to say, this traditional view came to be more and more widely rejected in the modern era, as philosophers retreated to subjectivisms of various sort, ultimately reduced to the fleeting, disconnected impressions of Hume and the later positivists. But Ortega points out that even this radical skepticism is not the end of the line. The philosopher can retreat to his own inner sanctum of ideas: “there may be no corresponding reality to what our ideas project and what our thoughts think; but this does not make them purely subjective. A world of hallucination would not be real, but neither would it fail to be a world, an objective universe full of sense and perfection.” This is the philosophical condition of Cubism, according to Ortega. So as he presents it, the artist, like the philosopher, has followed a line of thought to its apparent bitter end, and then followed it some more. But at any point along the way, one might stop and ask whether one is heading in a desirable direction. Perhaps instead of forging on, one should turn back?
I think Rockwell—like Chesterton, by the way—elected to turn back. Rockwell was not a philosopher and I don’t know how he would have expressed himself on any of these matters, had he ever done so. But I believe that his common-sense approach was not unlike that of the scholastics, in their belief that “the horse lives by himself, complete and perfect, according to his mysterious inner energy; if we wish to know him, our senses, our understanding must go to him and turn humbly, as it were, in his orbit.” It is this humble turning to the humble things of the world that allows us this prospect of recovery that Tolkien spoke of. It is this humble turning to the humble things of the world that serves as Rockwell’s “mooreeffoc.” In his presentation of the humble objects of the world to us, each according to its own mysterious inner energy, Rockwell gives us the fresh perspective that we so often need.
Consider Rockwell’s 1950 painting, “Shuffleton’s Barbershop.” This is, without doubt, one of Rockwell’s greatest paintings. It also, and not coincidentally, paradigmatically exemplifies this Rockwellian virtue of endowing objects with a demoniacal life. Each thing in the picture is its own little world. Even the very window itself through which we view the shop within, winks at us by way of the light reflected off its crack. The stove, the chair, the broom, the objects piled up on the shelves—each one is painted as lit from within. I have never taken much notice of old barber chairs before. But a careful study of this picture will show you the fascinating truth that barber chairs keep a record of their clients. The cut hair falls inside of the chair, where it accumulates over the years until it winds up hump-backed, as though bent over by its labors. Rockwell’s painting achieves what might be achieved otherwise by standing me on my head—he makes me look at the thing with a fresh perspective, when I approach him humbly.
Another case where the demoniacal life of the individual objects in the picture is strongly emphasized is Rockwell’s “The Voyeur.” Rockwell scholar Karal Ann Marling has linked this 1944 Post cover to Surrealism. She writes, “The intensity with which Rockwell attacks certain parts of the picture—human hair, for example—is disturbing. Pushed this far, realism becomes surrealism” (Norman Rockwell, 117). She continues: “The headgear atop the hair possesses a kind of neurotic energy of its own” (125). This seems right to me—the hair, and the hat, live by themselves with their own mysterious inner energy. I am not sure what connection this really has to Surrealism, but that’s not a line to pursue here. The point is that for Rockwell, every hair on the head of his creatures is numbered, because each of his creatures is its own delightful thing, to be approached humbly. The overall point of this picture, if it must be described as having a point, is surely the invitation to look and appreciate.
You could make additional connections, if you like. The little girl’s intent starting comes back a decade later as “Girl at Mirror,” where the young lady looks at herself. You might think of the girl in “The Voyeur” as looking at herself, as well—she is trying to see her older self in the young lady who is snuggled up with the soldier. Or perhaps this girl is seeing her father in the young soldier. In 1944, she would be far from unique in missing her Daddy, who had gone off to war. (He is not depicted with her on the train, anyway.) But whatever else you may think about the image, it seems clear that Rockwell has painted it with such intense attention to detail—and has shown the girl looking so intently—in order to help us pay attention to such things ourselves. The vivid lives of the small objects in the painting—their hyper-existence—present them to us for retrieval and gratitude. We must approach things as a little child would: humbly.
Unfortunately, it is typical to approach Rockwell rather haughtily, since he was not a “real artist.” This common attitude does no harm to Rockwell, but it surely does no good for those who scornfully decline to accept his help.
As I have argued elsewhere, Rockwell did not aim to express himself in his artwork, but instead aimed to express that which was to be expressed. Yet, I said, he did of course also express himself, and it is this self-expression which, in a sense, gives his artwork its enduring value. What I’ve described here is (part of) what I meant there. His mooreeffoc is his self-expression. Rockwell couldn’t help but put into his pictures his delight at the world he observed, and his gratitude for it. May we learn the same.
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The featured image of Normal Rockwell is in the collection of the Library of Congress and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The image of the “Crucifixion of St. Peter,” by Masaccio (1426) is also in the public domain, and is again courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.