Religious Imagery in Norman Rockwell Paintings


Contrary to a widespread misconception, Norman Rockwell was not a conventionally religious man. He was raised Episcopalian and spent many boyhood hours in church serving in the choir. But as an adult, Rockwell did not belong to a church at all, and seems to have entirely walked away from any kind of regular religious devotion. So where does this widespread misconception come from?

Well, think of “Saying Grace” or “Freedom of Worship,” for example: two of Rockwell’s best-known paintings. One depicts a grandmother and grandson at prayer in a crowded restaurant. The other depicts a group of floating heads praying. (I am not a fan of Rockwell’s floating head paintings. Unfortunately, he produced quite a few of them. But that’s neither here nor there.) Both are often mistaken for religious or devotional paintings. Viewers see images of prayer, and somewhat uncritically assume that the artist is depicting the sort of thing that he himself commonly does. But that’s not the case. And really, neither of these paintings is really about religion at all, and certainly neither is devotional. More properly speaking, they’re about tolerance. To the extent that there’s some kind of message in these pictures, it’s not “love God,” it’s “be respectful.” It’s a mistake, in other words, to think that since Rockwell is depicting people praying, that he himself must be a particularly prayerful sort of man. But this seems to be common mistake: thus, the widespread misconception.

Now, this misconception is widespread among Rockwell’s legion of fans, not among those few professional art critics who are willing to pay attention to Rockwell. (Their numbers are increasing, but they’re still a minority.) On the contrary, critical discussions of Rockwell tend to simply ignore religion altogether, on the assumption that since he was not a devout man, there would not be much by way of religious imagery in his work. But this is at least as gross an error as is the widespread misconception about Rockwell’s piety. Both views are wrong, and both views are distorting.

In this brief article, I will present one particularly powerful case study of a deeply religious Rockwell image that has simply never been seen as such before, as far as I know. I am speaking of Shuffleton’s Barbershop.

Shuffleton’s Barbershop is one of Rockwell’s better-known works, and clearly one of his best. If you’re just glancing at it, you see the dark front room of the barbershop through the shop’s front window; and you see the well-lit back room of the barbershop, where three men are playing music together. And you might think: “what a sweet scene of small town life!” Or, alternatively, you might think “Awful, kitschy garbage!” Either way, you have not really seen the painting. So let’s make an effort. Take the time to really look. What might you see then?

RockwellShuffletonsBarbershopFirst, you’ll notice that you’re looking through a window into a dark room. You can’t see the window itself, of course, but you can see a bit of the frame, and you can see some of the lettering on the window, announcing what lies within as home to a barber. The dark room is the barbershop itself, and contains the barber’s chair, a woodstove, a sink, a couple of bookshelves and other odds and ends. In the center of the painting is the door to a back room. There are three men in the back room. Two can be seen more or less in profile, and the third—the sitting man—has his back to us.

There is a visual progress through this painting. We start at the lower left and follow the light into the center, where the action is. The visual progress, then, moves us from the comic books, through the barber chair with its white garment, across the threshold into the back room. The progress is one of moving from childish things—the comic books—to putting away childish things, by taking up a life of labor, indicated by the barber chair, and then on to the next room.

In short, the painting involves a kind of depiction of one of the most well-known passages of scripture: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:11-12).

If you think that’s a stretch, then I ask you to drink in the imagery more deeply. The most obvious bit—almost heavy-handed, once you see it—is the fact that in this picture, we are seeing through a glass, into a dark room. In short, the image is one of seeing through a glass, darkly. (The actual meaning of St. Paul’s words here aren’t particularly relevant. I’m taking them in a kind of flat-footed way, which I suspect is how they’re generally taken, as a result of the very popular but archaic King James Bible translation.) This much, I think is as safe as an artistic interpretation can be. Whether this particular instance of seeing through a glass, darkly, is actually supposed to be an invocation of the Pauline passage, however, is not established yet. But there’s much more.

Note that the painting has a natural division between the “now” and the “then”—specifically, the well-lit back room is the “then,” and the remainder of the painting (including where the viewer stands) is the “now.” From our perspective in the “now,” we see the men in the back only in part. They can see each other face to face: and so could we, if we were to join them there. The “then” to which St. Paul refers is the afterlife, or heaven. He is speaking of our vision of God after we die. So if Rockwell means that back room to be connected to this passage, he ought to give some sign that the way across that threshold is death. And he does—indeed, once you see it, you see that he does it almost heavy-handedly.

Right next to the doorway into the back room, there is a poster tacked to the wall. The poster depicts an American flag at half staff. It says “Remember D…” This is a real poster, and it was really there in Rob Shuffleton’s shop: the poster says “Remember December 7th.” In the painting, that lower right of the poster is hidden behind a hat and coat hanging on a shelf. So all we can see of the writing is “Remember D.” Rockwell added the coat and hat to the painting—they weren’t there in the photo (at least, the photo published in Ron Schick’s book of Rockwell’s modeling photos, Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera). So he deliberately covered the remainder, turning the poster from reminder of the horrible events that began our involvement in WWII, to a more generic kind of flag at half staff. The poster serves as a very strong case of the memento mori—again, it’s almost a heavy-handed one, once you see it. And this memento mori is strengthened by the discarded outer garments hanging at the entryway to the back room.

There’s also a kind of implied temporal progression from now to then, as I’ve already hinted. We start at the lower left with the comic books—childish things. We progress through the barber chair—adult things. And then on across the threshold to the next world. This pathway is marked out by the light emanating from the back room. It leads through the chair and points to the comic books (though it does not seem to given the source of their muted illumination). So if we follow the light in the painting, it leads us from childhood to the afterlife.

A great deal more could be said about the details of the imagery in Shuffleton, but I won’t belabor the point. At any rate, once you get to the little details, and trying to fit them into the big picture, there’s always room for the suspicion that you’re being a bit too fanciful. To be frank, I don’t see how these big-picture interpretive claims I’ve been making here could be seen to be fanciful at all, though. As I say, Rockwell seems to have been almost heavy-handed in his allusions to the Pauline passage. And that passage is far from obscure. One would think the connections would leap to mind. Instead, when critics start talking about Shuffleton’s Barbershop, they go into (for example) the painting’s use of grids, and how Rockwell’s work is thus connected in some way to Mondrian. (You can find this take on the painting in Robert Rosenblum’s essay in the volume Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People.) Well, that’s lovely and may well be true. But it seems a far greater leap to get to Mondrian-like grids than it takes to get to seeing through a glass, darkly. And it also seems to me that the Pauline allusions are likely to be getting much closer to the heart of whatever Rockwell was trying to do here, than a possible structural connection to Mondrian.

Other critics have taken a different sort of line, talking about the picture’s implied contrast between art and commerce, and explaining how the image shows Rockwell’s own struggles to make his peace with his status as a commercial artist rather than a “real” artist. (This approach shows up in various places, such as Richard Halpern’s deeply offensive Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence.) I find this take to be quite fanciful, too. But even if it’s right, it’s not incompatible with the religious interpretation I’ve given. If you think of the back room as a depiction of pure art, and the front room as a depiction of commerce, then you can see that Rockwell is drawn to pure art, but nevertheless considers his commercial art to be a kind of adult labor to which he is committed. He’s not a child—he’s moved past that—he’s a man, and he must work for his living. He’s not at a place where he can relax and just enjoy himself making art for his own pleasure. As I say, I’m not a fan of this take on the painting, but it does show that the religious interpretation needn’t be at odds with other interpretations. It can, instead, enrich them (and, in principle, be enriched by them).

Shuffleton is a far deeper and better painting than even some of its critical defenders realize. How many other Rockwell paintings are hiding such treasures? To find out, we need to start looking at the pictures with considerably more docility. My own view is that Rockwell is squarely in the tradition of Chestertonian fantasy (or “mooreeffoc”), and that his optimism is richly rooted in the Gospel, even in ways and places he himself was unaware of. Moreover, much of his work can and should be seen as providing examples of what Fr. Andrew Greeley calls the Catholic Imagination. In Rockwell’s case, it would be more accurate to call it the Episcopalian imagination, of course, but the point is that much of his artistic vision is soaked in liturgical imagery, particularly his color choices. This is a case I make in my book-in-progress, Lift Up Thine Eyes. Obviously, I can’t defend my whole view here, but I do think and hope that pausing to see what’s really there in Shuffleton can help us take a new path towards Rockwell, which avoids both facile gushing over its cuteness and “nostalgia,” and modernist art critical moves, which simply bury it under mounds of theory.

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Crisis Magazine.
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