Teaching Digital History

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RockwellNorman Rockwell's Family Tree 1959 

Chronicling America: The Art of Norman Rockwell, an exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Art, features 40 original Rockwell illustrations and 323 Saturday Evening Post covers. The comments below are contrasting analytical readings of illustrations. For each comment, one of the readings is representational and the other oppositional. The representational readings focus on what meets the eye and the direct messages conveyed by the illustration, with attention to the time when the illustration was made and the intentions of Rockwell. The second analytical reading is intentionally oppositional--- focused on subtexts that are communicated through the illustration and a counter-analysis of the direct and indirect messages that emerge. 

Rockwell's style, particularly early in his career, invites oppositional readings. Rockwell often produced illustrations designed to reflect idealized social conditions. Of course, all ideals have antecedents in reality, so oppositional readings of idealized content could be as straightforward as a contrasting reality. Rockwell was often hemmed by the requirements of his employers who insisted that his illustrations conform to normative social expectations. These expectations were typically narrowly conceived, often sexists, and sometimes racists. For example, Rockwell's editors made him revise his illustrations of women to make them more attractive, as was the case with his illustrations of Jo from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women series. 

The selection below from a Wikipedia article on Rockwell's Four Freedom's, provides some additional context.

"Rockwell is considered the "quintessential middlebrow American artist". As an artist he is an illustrator rather than a fine arts painter. Although his style is painterly, his work is produced for the purpose of mass reproduction, and it is produced with the intent of delivering a common message to its viewers via a detailed narrative style. Furthermore, the vast majority of Rockwell's work was viewed in reproduced format and almost none of his contemporaneous audience ever saw his original work. Also, Rockwell's style of backwoods New England small-town realism, known as regionalism, was sometimes viewed as out of step with the oncoming wave of abstract modern art. Some say his realism is so direct that he abstains from using artistic license. John Canaday, a New York Times art critic once referred to Rockwell as the "Rembrandt of Punkin' Crick" for his aversion to the vices of big city life. Dave Hickey derided Rockwell for painting without inflection. Some critics also view his sentimental and nostalgic vision out of step with the harsh realities of American life, such as The Great Depression.Some have summarized this combination by saying that Rockwell's Four Freedoms lack artistic maturity. Others point to the universality of the Freedom of Religion as disconcerting to practitioners of particular faiths. Others complained that he idealized American life because by depicting wholesome, healthy, and happy sentiments Rockwell depicted the good that was remembered or wished for, but by avoiding misery, poverty, and social unrest, he failed to demonstrate command of the bad and the ugly parts of American life. Rockwell's response to this criticism was, "I paint life as I would like it to be.""

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The Norman Rockwell painting I decided to elaborate on is entitled “I’m Thinking about My Kiddie,” dated in 1922. The painting was for an advertisement for Raybestos brake parts. The theme of the advertisement is to subtly play on people’s fear for their families safety. This is why Rockwell captured the theme by having a woman dressed nicely behind the wheel of a car holding onto her daughter. Anyone seeing this advertisement would be forced to have compassion for a family that lost a wife and daughter. The idea behind this image is to make one think twice about driving wreckless and putting into jeopardy the two most fragile types of life: women and young girls. Rockwell did an excellent job on playing with the emotions of others. Both the woman and the little girl in the image are staring directly at you, as if to say “please don’t drive crazy and hurt me.” The image almost makes you feel sorry and want to ensure that no one gets hurt while driving.

The image graciously attempts to ensure that car accidents and deaths from automobile does not occur for the sake of the family, primarily woman and children, but there is also a contrasting view to this image. The contradiction in this image is that the woman is behind the wheels. Before women got the right to vote in 1920, a womans place was to care for the household and not have much of an opinion. During this decade women finally started speaking up for themselves and demanding respect. Men more than likely not enthused with women having more power, and thus probably still saw them as being subordinate. So, for this woman to be driving the car as an appeal to stop unsafe drivers and cars, is quite ironic. Also, the image can be seen as a ploy to stop women from driving. Showing a woman driving a car could have had all intentions on demonstrating that women are the reason why cars can be unsafe. The fact that she has her daughter with her could imply that she is teaching her daughter how to be an unsafe driver.

This image has many connotations connected to it, most of them dealing with the status of women. So depending on one’s beliefs and opinion, one or more interpretations of this image can be made. It is important to remember what the times were when this image was captured, 1922. Women were on their way to the top. This painting would be a great segue in a social class to discuss when women received the right to vote and when discussing women suffrage.

Norman Rockwell’s oil painting, “Girl at Mirror” appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on March 6, 1954. Two oppositional interpretations are provided here, one in which the girl struggles with a societal image of beauty in which she feels she must attempt to imitate and another in which the girl recognizes her own inherent beauty and is focused upon what the future holds for her.

The painting truly speaks to the turmoil a young girl contends with as she enters adolescence. This painting shows a doll that has been strewn to the side with one foot on each side of the mirror, signifying the one foot that remains in childhood and the other that has crossed the threshold to adolescence. Closer in proximity to the young girl are several articles used to enhance a woman’s beauty and in her lap sits a magazine with the face of a beautiful woman staring up at her. The young girl stares in the mirror almost forlornly; as she yearns for womanhood and a sense of belonging in this new world she is beginning to see. The child touches her face in comparison to the woman in the magazine. This represents the beginning of the arduous battle this girl will face as she enters adolescence and eventually womanhood, where society will dictate the definition of beauty. The girl will continually be forced to stare in the mirror judging, pulling at her face, trying new beauty products that promise to make her beautiful and comparing her own image to that found in a magazine.

In an oppositional interpretation of this oil painting, the girl can be viewed not as judging and comparing herself to the unattainable definition of beauty given by society, but rather as appreciating the beauty she has. The image of the girl in the mirror has the faintest hint of a glow surrounding her, highlighting the obvious inherent beauty of the girl. The hands and feet appear distinctly non-childlike and attest to the fact that she is coming of age. The look on her face can be viewed as less judgmental, and more inquisitive and appraising. The overturned doll carelessly cast to the side portrays a forgotten childhood relic, no longer of significance to the girl. The sole interest is in the upcoming future, and what lies beyond the mirror. In this interpretation, the young girl is not apprehensive of the future or concerned with her image of fitting in, rather she is appreciating her own beauty and preparing to move forward into womanhood. The magazine is not a tool which the girl is comparing herself with, but is rather a window to what she believes lies ahead, what she has to look forward to.

Image is a paramount issue that pre-adolescent and adolescent girls contend with on a daily basis. As educators, it is imperative that we ensure all students have a positive self-image and appreciate that beauty is defined differently by everyone. This painting provides a perfect illustration of these concerns and an opportunity for secondary and middle grade teachers to explore these issues with students, both male and female.

Norman Rockwell's The Young Lady with a Shiner, painted in 1953, depicts a young student at school who, having been in a fight, sits on a bench awaiting a lecture and potential punishment from her school's principal. Despite this, the girl in question is ecstatic, and bears a wide smile on her face. Her eye is swollen and bruised, her hair, obviously pulled, is a mess, and her clothing is torn and disheveled. The viewer can instantly tell from the smile that she wouldn't have it any other way, and that she enjoyed the fight immensely. Given her pigtails, untied shoes, and knobby knees and elbows, it is clear that the student is a tomboy, a girl that revels in living a more masculine lifestyle than that of other girls her age. Taken at first glance, the viewer may take the painting as a celebration of female independence.

However, when one looks at the other two characters in the painting, the gendered message becomes more traditional. The student has been brought to the principal's office by her teacher, a well-dressed, beautiful unmarried woman who, while telling the bemused principal of what happened, gazes back at the student (and miraculously, through the wall), with a loving but very concerned look on her face. This is the female role model of the painting, a woman who knows that the young girl, if she maintains this way of life, will end up unhappy in the society of 1950s America. The teacher may have been a tomboy when she was younger, but if so, then she has put that behind her and now dresses and carries herself as a "lady" should. She hopes that her student will likewise give up and become a proper "lady."

The teacher's visage is quite grim, if caring. To judge by the expressions of her and the principal, the teacher takes this matter much more seriously than does the principal, who is charged with the maintenance of order in his school. This is not surprising: men often find tomboys to be cute, in a childish way. The principal, who is the teacher's nominal superior, is also depicted as weaker than the teacher - he wears glasses, is thin, and wears a bemused expression. His tangentiality to the struggle between the teacher and her student shows that this is primarily a female struggle - women are tasked with bringing up girls in the proper way in American society, and men bear little responsibility. For Rockwell, tomboyhood is cute when young, but independence and "masculinity" among girls must be suppressed as they grow older.

The painting's title is "cute" and a trifle condescending, playing upon the paradoxical juxtaposition between the student being a "lady" while sporting a black eye. Again, this condescension bolsters Rockwell's point - a girl who gets into a fight is no "lady."

If one can ignore the gendered subtexts within this painting however, it's still kind of awesome. The applications to a social studies class are obvious - one can ask students what they think this painting portrays, and then ask them what the other characters are thinking, in order to arrive at a deeper understanding of the work's implicit message.

This Norman Rockwell piece is particularly resonating given our collegiate setting. The facial expression painted captures both the optimism and the bewilderment that a college graduate experiences as they bridge their education and career. Norman Rockwell's The Graduate painting served as a Saturday Evening Post cover on June 6, 1959. The painting featured Rockwell's son, Tommy, as the graduate and was originally painted without the newsprint background. In the initial piece, Rockwell painted a halo around the boy’s head. This artistic tool was previously used in Medieval and early Renaissance art to accentuate important and religious figures. Rockwell seemed to employ the technique to enhance viewers' draw to the graduate's facial expression.

The underlay of the time period's headlines add additional relevance given the similar condition of today’s national and international affairs. The inclusion of this newsprint compound the message of this painting. In addition to the nervous excitement experienced by a new graduate, additional economical, political, and global issues are also taken on. Many may associate a graduation ceremony as an optimistic time. The facial expression and the uncertainties echoed in the newsprint remind viewers of the additional emotions shouldered by young grads.

Despite the light that Rockwell’s piece sheds on the position of new graduates, it lends itself to the stereotype that journalism is unduly negative. This is an unfair critique supported by Rockwell’s careful inclusion of only those headlines that were negatively biased. As a result, viewers aren’t exposed to the entirety of any one page that would have likely featured additional helpful material. Newspaper articles and other journalism mediums have historically featured classifieds, advice columns and expositions of local businesses and corporations that are helpful and informative for job-seekers.

Those that tune out from news due to its negativity are likely victims of stereotype rather than reality. An Ohio State University researcher proved through experimentation that negative messages have a larger impact on people, thus the reason for negative political campaigning. This effect defends the relativity of some realistic, though negative, articles within journalism. Additionally, it points to the likelihood that the association of negative bias with news is because those articles are more outstanding. Ultimately, there are positive features, such as comics and entertainment articles, that readers can enjoy. Informative journalism featuring events, tips, and expositions also abound. In the wake of historic lows of newspaper readership and subscription, it is necessary to defend this important resource. Our nation’s founding fathers maintained and fought for the importance of free speech. The news is an important resource that defends this right and helpfully serves to inform, expose and express the happenings of our people, nation and world.

In Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Want, he is illustrating one of the four freedoms that President Roosevelt had expressed hope for. In a famous speech in January of 1941, Roosevelt hinted that the United States would most likely end up as a part of WWII and that we would be fighting for four basic freedoms worldwide: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Rockwell painted an image for each of the four freedoms that were used as advertisements to help sell war bonds. Freedom from Want represents a happy family sitting down to what looks like a hearty meal with its main course being a big turkey. A grandmother-like figure is serving the turkey to a full table of smiling faces. It is obvious that Rockwell was trying to depict a family who did not have to worry about “wanting” anything more than what they had because they had plenty. This is an image of a family who did not have to worry about having food on the table that night or shelter over their heads. Roosevelt’s famous speech was in early 1941; this image was not published until early 1943. In the interim, the United States had entered World War II. Thus, this image was even more poignant to those who saw it at the time of its publication; it was what they were fighting for.

This image could be interpreted in many different ways than Rockwell had intended. Given the fact that Americans who were viewing this image had just been through the Great Depression, this image is extremely idealistic and, therefore, not realistic. Very few families in the early 1940s would actually be sitting down to a similar meal and setting. Having that many men at the table was not realistic either; at that time, most men were at war while women gradually left the home to enter the workforce. Then we come to the subtext of race. All of the characters in the painting are white; this could suggest that the United States was actually only fighting for the freedom from want for whites. It is hard to argue with that interpretation given racial segregation in the United States and the events of the years following the war. After the war, whites did seem to have achieved freedom from want, while blacks had to fight yet another battle to achieve their own freedoms. Another oppositional interpretation of the image could be that of it showing a family with an excessive amount of food; this could be seen as a metaphor for the United States at the dinner table with too much food while other countries are left with too little.

"Murder in Mississppi" does not conform to the image of the Norman Rockwell we cherish and revile as a nation. We think of Rockwell as the creator of an unreal “real middle America” absent of ugliness or strife. To Rockwell's fans, this portrayal is a reassurring one that absolves America of the world's sins and portrays its citizens as heroes who overcome adversity or as people who live quiet lives in a safe community of people who share their values. This vision of American society is simultaneously very private and oriented to a narrow and circumscribed public service that falls within American norms, like Scouting or Thanksgiving dinners.

The painting “Murder in Mississippi” forces us to confront realities about the United States, attention to which some of Rockwell's fans find treasonous to their beloved country. Rockwell developed a social conscience on the Civil Rights movement. The painting portrays a scene of the death of a young black activist in the arms of a white activist. At their feet is the corpse of another activist. The unfinished painting is rather effective the way it is, in sepia tones with only the blood bright red. These activists fall outside both the peaceful home and the aegis of communally approved public service; activism is, by definition, public action outside and against the status quo represented by such things as scouting. What was only a subtext in Rockwell's previous portraits of white middle class harmony now comes out as the penalty for transgressing that order: death. The painting, then, shows the moral progress of a man who now realizes the human cost of his vision of white middle American bliss.

This does not necessarily mean however, that Rockwell wants a society distinctly different from the one he favored with his images of Boy Scouts and happy family life. His image of Ruby Bridges walking to school shows a perfectly ordinary girl living a life not unlike that of the white children in previous drawings, with her books and white dress. It could be that Rockwell simply wanted everyone in America to have the American quiet life, towards which he still shows prejudice here. His only image of activists is as victims of violence, the opposite of the quiet life he wants for all. He never shows activists talking with each other, studying, or even marching peacefully.

In fact, Rockwell's handwritten notes describe one of the victims of the murder in Mississippi as a “Jew atheist,” someone decidedly outside the norms of Rockwell's norm of American life. He obsessively researched the crime, as if racial violence were a revelation to him. He studied blood stained shirts from a photograph taken during the Vietnam War to portray the murder. He seems to struggle here with the idea that such things could happen in his beloved America and whether to have sympathy for blacks and "Jew atheists" for transgressing its boundaries. It is noteworthy, too, that the white man is still the main heroic figure, despite the tragic death of the black man as the stated subject matter.
I chose to analyze the painting "Murder in Mississippi" from the 1960's due to the sheer emotion present in the painting. The image depicts a dead white man laying on the ground and a black man covered in blood, on his knees embracing a standing white man. At first glance, one might see this as a man begging for his life before being punished for his crime. However, upon closer inspection there appears to be no hostility on the face of the standing white man. Instead he is loosely returning the embrace of the black man and looking stalwartly into the distance. He seems to be saying, "Just try to come and take this man." There seems to be little discussion as to who actually killed the dead man, but the reasons for the murder are left unknown. Rockwell seems to be implying that the killing was justified, and the remorseful stance of the black man shows that it could not have been in cold blood.

The actual event that the painting portrays is a murder that caused a huge controversy and high-profile trial in Mississippi. The black man is the accused, and the white man who he embraces is his lawyer, Charles Morgan Jr. Morgan was a famous civil rights lawyer throughout the 20th century who defended blacks in many cases across the country. He was so effective in helping African-Americans win their cases and their fight for equal rights that many whites threatened him regularly, and he was vilified in many communities. While he certainly was not present at this murder, Rockwell represents him as defending a man who was quite possibly forced into illegal action. His glare just invites someone to try to take him on.

When I view the painting, I see a representation of the Civil Rights Era. For so long, white held blacks down through poor education, no job opportunities, racism, and lynching. By the time of Martin Luther King Jr., African Americans were downtrodden to say the least, and during Civil Rights many confronted white social superiority angrily and sometimes with violence. For example, Malcolm X preached a more violent approach to pursuing rights than his peaceful counterpart Martin Luther King Jr. But could these blacks be blamed for their response? Norman Rockwell seems to be saying no. This painting demonstrates the reality where African Americans are acting in self defense, and it is the duty of whites to work with them rather than pushing back forcibly. Unfortunately, this is not happening in most cases, and Rockwell knows it.

While this image presents a wonderful feeling of solidarity between blacks and whites, I believe Rockwell understood that it was an anomaly in the system. Yes, people like Charles Morgan did exist, but they were few and far between. In the 1960's most whites responded to the push for equality between the races with anger and violence. Blacks were often beaten within an inch of their life and many were lynched just for their opinions. These were not just isolated incidents either - the cruelty was institutionalized. The FBI and police organizations often turned a blind eye to violence against blacks and punished African-Americans unfairly for any retaliatory or equivalent actions. While this painting suggests hope for this scenario, Rockwell was well aware that in most cases hope was delusional.

Rather than being an image of how America was coming together, the painting truly shows just how far we are from that point. African-Americans had very few allies to defend them during this era, and the very idea of most whites embracing them while standing ready to defend their rights was truly laughable. Rockwell stuns his audience by deliberately creating this contrast from reality

Analytical Reading

Norman Rockwell painted this Life Magazine cover in 1923. It features a Puritan man in the stockades, with a sign of his crime—gluttony. The stockades were a common form of punishment for pilgrims, along with a sign of the crime, which let everybody that walked by know of the accused crime. This is representative of two different form of punishment. The stockades provided a painful physical form of punishment, while the advertisement of the crime provided a lonely social punishment. In the early days of New England, when food was tough, a crime like gluttony would have been highly discouraged because food was something that was very important. The fall leaves in the corner further demonstrate that it is fall time and food will need to be conserved to get through the winter.

While this is a very entertaining cover and something that describes a historical time period, it may have also served as a reminder to Americans to not overindulge during Thanksgiving, or to at least remember how far they have come since the first Thanksgiving. In the 1920’s America was experiencing a time of great prosperity and it would be easy for people to forget about their past.

Oppositional Reading
Norman Rockwell painted this Life Magazine cover in 1923. It features a Puritan man in the stockades, with a sign of his crime—gluttony. The stockades were a common form of punishment for pilgrims, along with a sign of the crime, which let everybody that walked by know of the accused crime. This is representative of two different form of punishment. The stockades provided a painful physical form of punishment, while the advertisement of the crime provided a lonely social punishment. This is an ironic representation of Puritan life by Rockwell. The pilgrim is obviously not a glutton—he is very skinny and probably needs more food. However, he is being represented as somebody that is overweight and overindulges—very ironic and comedic. The yellow leaves at his feet show as a reminder that it is the Thanksgiving season and the seasons are changing into winter.

1923 was a time of great prosperity for America. By entertaining Americans in this Life Magazine cover, Rockwell is reminding Americans of their past and to not be like their frugal forefathers. There is no need to hoard food, there is plenty to go around and it is their right to indulge this one time of the year. By laughing at their forefathers, Americans can think about how far they have progressed socially from the quaint Pilgrims and celebrate accordingly.

Use in the classroom

This activity can be incorporated into the classroom to teach critical thinking skills, as well as research skills. Students would work on their critical thinking skills by looking at both sides of a painting and digging for a meaning about what is being said in art. Research skills are needed to work these critical thinking skills because background knowledge is needed to come to any form of analysis on art work. A person needs to know about the artist, the time period they represent, and the time period they paint.

I chose Norman Rockwell’s painting “The Problem We All Live With” which ran in LOOK Magazine on January 14, 1964. This may possibly be one of the most controversial oil paintings that were ever done by Rockwell in his lifetime. It is different in that it does not portray the “perfect America” as he often did. The painting is really the complete opposite of anything great in this world; it is a depiction of segregation and hate. For one of the first times, an African American is not taking a back seat in the picture to allow the image to run in magazines.

The little girl in the picture is never named, but most critics speculate that the scene is based off of Ruby Bridges, the little girl that was escorted to school in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1960. It is the setting of the Civil Rights struggle of the early 1960s. You can see there are three officers that are escorting the little girl to school, as she was the only colored one to be entering kindergarten that day. There are smashed tomatoes on the wall, and the word “Nigger” is written above her.

The image can be meant to portray sympathy for African Americans in their horrendous struggle toward equal rights. The little girl just makes a person feel sympathetic towards her, and the obstacles she must face just to go into school. The depiction of her in the white dress adds to the “purity” factor that comes into play, which is contrasting with the color of her skin. Not only is the word “Nigger” written on the wall, but you see to the left of the marshal that “KKK” is scribbled on the wall as well. The tomatoes smashed against the wall point out that they are intentionally being thrown at her, and obviously by a white person. The image is challenging racism as a whole, and is showing support for desegregation. The issue of equal rights is unquestionable in this scene.

The obvious other direction this painting could take would be in favor of segregation. It could be from the point of view that colored children do not deserve to be in school with white children. The deliberate use of the words scribbled on the wall depict that the person seeing this does not believe everyone is equal. When considering the time period that is taking place, this image is extremely forward in its representation of civil rights. The faces of all three officers are not shown, which could represent the institution of racism. They can almost be seen as boxing the little girl in, which may be pointing out her differences even more.

Although I believe that everyone is equal, and that we all should have the same rights, it does not mean that people do not face certain struggles. This image at the time was a reality check to Americans that tried to believe that racism didn’t exist.

This Norman Rockwell painting was published on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on August 3, 1946. The painting is titled “Fixing a Flat.” The painting depicts two women fixing a flat tire. The women have neat white dresses on, but are still lying on the ground in an effort to change the flat. They are in the front of what appears to be a worn, unkempt house. The property around the house also appears to be neglected with trash around the foot of the house and goats running around with no fence. There is a man lounging on the front porch of the house as the two women are getting their hands dirty with the repair of their vehicle. The man seems to be looking towards the women without shoes on. He does not look as if he is willing to even offer help to the women.

It seems as if Rockwell is making two statements in this painting. The man is representative of laziness and the downfall that can happen to one’s property and existence if it persists. The women on the other hand represent ingenuity and diligence. With a little hard work and know how, even women could change their situation. The other statement is about the shifting roles of gender stereotypical behavior. With the end of World War II, came an expansive shift for the roles of women in society. Women had been given roles in society as a working class while the majority of the men were off to war. Women of the day were used to getting their hands dirty and doing things themselves without the help of a man.

Though unintentionally, Rockwell’s painting could also be interpreted as a representation of socioeconomic disparity. If the backgrounds of the characters in the painting are considered, it makes more sense why this man would not help the women change the tire. Had the man been a veteran of World War II or even World War I, he may not have had the physical capability to fix up his house and help the women. If this were the case, it would explain his perceived laziness and the disheveled state of his property. It also appears that the man is living in a state of poverty while these women, dainty and neat, are fixing the tire to their nice car. Clearly, the women are educated enough to know how to fix the tire, perhaps the man was not. The painting can also depict the effect the war had financially and physically on the men who came home to next to nothing with no means of changing their situation. These are all unintentional representations of Rockwell's paintings because as he stated "I paint life as I would like it to be." If this were the case, Rockwell would certainly not intentionally paint a world in which socioeconomic disparities exist.

This could be used in a social studies class to help students grasp the difference between women before and after World War II. It could also get them thinking about socioeconomic status and the effect it can have of cultural and social interactions. These interpretations could be compared to the same disparities we are dealing with in modern culture.

"Child Psychology" was featured on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post on November 23, 1933. The painting features a seemingly overwhelmed mother with her child strewn across her lap. She is holding a silver hairbrush in one hand and a child psychology book in her other. There are various household items scattered on the floor: a broken vase, a shattered handheld mirror, a destroyed clock, and a hammer. The scene that is illustrated for us is one of a disobedient child and a mother unsure how to handle the situation.

It is impossible to know exactly what has transpired between the mother and child. It is obvious, however; that the child has misbehaved and the mother is trying to decide on the best course of action. It is also safe to assume that the child is responsible for the broken items on the floor. The fact that the child is lying across her lap leads the audience to believe that she is preparing to spank him or her with the hairbrush in her hand. The face of the child is not visible; therefore the gender of the child is unknown. Since the painting is from 1933 and the child is wearing shorts it is most likely a boy.

It would seem that the statement Rockwell is trying to make with this painting is in relation to parenting. The mother is reading the book with a look of confusion or possibly even horror. Her face is read and while she grips the boy and her hairbrush firmly in one hand it does not look like she is in any hurry to spank him. Could this painting be an artistic commentary on corporal punishment? It’s possible. Perhaps, Rockwell is illustrating the confusion over all the varying opinions out there on how to discipline and child rear. While a spanking looks to be in this child’s near future, the mother seems to be checking the book just to make sure she should proceed. Regardless, Rockwell is pointing out a trend among mothers to consult professional opinion in regards to raising and disciplining their children.

This painting could be used in a social studies classroom to depict similarities between 1930’s culture and culture today. While we spend a lot of time in social studies talking about how things have changed throughout history, it is also important to showcase similarities in order for students draw connections and relate. In this painting we have a child in trouble for misbehavior. Everyone can relate to that. Even though children in the 1930’s played with different toys, didn’t have television or video games, and lived in a different time they still got in trouble with their parents.
Boy in a Dining Car

Idealistic Reading:
One could interpret this picture from a sweet nostalgic perspective; the first time a young adolescent took the train to visit grandma. Here the adolescent is looking at the dining car ticket trying to figure out the bill and perhaps a tip for the server. One can see by the way the adolescent is sitting that he is trying to behave well and like a mini-adult. Yet the railroad ticket in the boy’s pocket, the wallet held palm up in his hand and his inability to place his feet flat on the floor demonstrates his youthfulness. The struggle of adolescence is well depicted in this scene with the young boy striving for adult qualities while his youthful demeanor betrays him. On the right side of the picture is a porter smiling and patiently waiting for the adolescent to provide him with payment of the bill.

This idealistic reading has purposeful minimized the role of the porter in the picture. At the time the picture was painted, society would have viewed the porter as a mere adjective, adding to the depth of the picture as a dining car. Readers of the Saturday Evening Post would have more likely identified with the young boy and his struggle to show himself as a man.

Opposing Reading:
This painting questions traditional society’s view of African-Americans in the mid 1940s. Both the African-American man and the young, white boy reside on the sides of the painting, neither is center. In the painting, the young boy’s width space is equal to that of the African American man, as the young boy’s chair is an extension of his body mass. But the young boy is significantly shorter in stature and has his head bowed down while the African-American man is standing tall with a slightly downward tilted head. This difference in height plays to the African-American power question leading up to the civil rights movement. The African-American man stands confident in his environment. While in contrast the boy is struggling within himself to present as a man. He is in a new environment and unsure of his role. It appears as though the African-American man is viewing the young boy with compassion and patience. The man could be annoyed or in a rush with the young boy’s laboring over the bill, however, the African-American man is allowing the young boy time. In this way, it is the African-American man with confidence and power and in turn, he is using his power to give respect and compassion to the young boy. This picture also speaks to the universal feelings of becoming an adult. The African-American man has compassion for the young boy, perhaps because he remembers what it was like to be an adolescent striving to prove himself as an adult.

This painting could be used in a social studies class to address the question of inequality. Students could evaluate paintings to determine how the majority viewed minority groups through-out time. In contrast, students could then evaluate the art of those in minority groups through time.


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