B. Scott Crawford
A lone worker carries a picture frame through a gallery in a museum. The picture frame actually encloses the very average looking employee, who is clearly a blue-collar worker based on his uniform. Adding to his class identification is a towel flung over his shoulder and a nail hanging from his mouth, not to mention the tools hanging from his pocket. Yet in typical Rockwell fashion the painting comes to life as paintings in this fictitious gallery actually come to life! The painting is one of three Rockwell paintings where the paintings in the works react to stimuli outside of their framed shells. In this case, a pompous British military officer literally looks down his nose at our blue-collar worker as a Renaissance era aristocrat stares at the worker with utter disdain. However, interestingly a beautiful woman in an impressionistic stylistic manner stares at our everyman with an almost wonton gaze; Rockwell almost subtly challenges and mocks the so called “male gaze” as the male worker carries out his business, ignoring the scantly clad woman in the portrait, while this woman now casts her gaze upon him!
Norman Rockwell’s ca. 1946 painting Framed is a wonderful work at many levels, and it was this work that served as the focus of January’s Gathering in the Galleries. The work is part of the Taubman Museum of Art’s permanent collection, procured through the generous donations of Heywood Fralin. It is a work also tied to the still-undefined Fralin Center of American Art, a potential academic endeavor the museum could have developed that would have brought more positive attention to the reason the museum exists: the museum’s American collection consisting of works from the 19th through mid 20th centuries.
Rockwell’s Framed is an important work for several reasons. First, as mentioned, it is one of only three Rockwell works where Rockwell depicts works of art within the composition that in essence come to life and interact with stimuli outside of their framed environments. His first painting to bring portraits to life was in 1944. In that particular work, titled Fireman, a fireman looks disgustingly downward toward a smoking cigar that has been irresponsibly left on a shelf beneath his portrait. The other work to do this was The Art Critic, completed in 1955. In this painting a presumably art student closely examines a ca. 17th c. portrait that he clearly intends to reproduce based on the equipment he awkwardly holds. The portrait he studies comes to life and looks back at him with a somewhat excited expression while a painting containing three men all glance at the student and react to his examining her so closely. With these works occurring in 1944 and 1955, Framed becomes the second painting Rockwell did where he brings portraits to life within his compositions.
Second, Framed is representative of Rockwell’s artistic style. It is a wonderful representative piece of his oeuvre. The work has everything you would expect to find in a Rockwell. It has an average American as its subject, it reflects a color palette that is common in Rockwell’s works, and it has that whimsical quality that is so Rockwellian. Framed has another distinction that ties it so heavily to Rockwell’s standard characteristics: it, like so many of his works, graced the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. Framed was on the cover of the March 2, 1946, edition of the Evening Post, thus we know that he had completed the painting by the spring of that year.
Possibly we need look no further than Rockwell’s Four Freedoms series to begin to prove Larson’s and Hennessey’s thesis true. His artistic depiction of the four basic Freedoms President Roosevelt outlined in 1941 are reassuring, honor the American spirit, helped shape a sense of the past as they reflect scenes with which most Americans could relate, and clearly celebrate the ordinary. The works, through their reflection, in a simple and clear manner, of basic ideals for which America stands helped to visually illustrate what at essence was at stake during World War II and that for which American soldiers would fight: freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of speech, and freedom to worship as one chooses.
Framed arguably visually represents another important American ideal. This particular ideal is the foundation upon which the United States is founded, and it is an ideal that was quite relevant when Rockwell painted Framed as World War II had just ended, with this ideal emerging triumphantly, and as the Cold War was in its beginning stages, as this ideal was witnessing a new challenge in the form of totalitarian communism. The ideal, of course, is the concept that “all men are created equal.”
Historically, those celebrated in portraiture tended to come from the upper class. Outside of artistic movements that captured genre scenes, the average person to commission an artist to paint his or her portrait was quite wealthy. The pompous British officer and scowling Renaissance aristocrat reflect this nicely. Yet Framed forces us to question why the officer looks down on our everyman museum worker and why the aristocrat so angrily glares from his canvas toward him? Arguably the answer is simple: the frame surrounding the worker allows him, just as the officer and aristocrat, to be represented as a portrait. The common man is now elevated to the status of alleged “social betters” and thus, through the composition, becomes equal to them.
However, it should be noted that our everyman is not constrained by his frame, as is the case with the officer and aristocrat. Our worker is in motion; he is on the move, so to speak, suggesting that the foundation upon which classical liberalism rests is alive and similarly on the move. Antithetically, the antiquated notions of social hierarchy and aristocracy are in a sense dead in the water as the officer and aristocrat are contained within a frame.
Possibly driving this point home is Rockwell’s inclusion of a small sculpture that compositionally relates to the museum worker as they both have a similar stance. Both sculpture and worker are in motion with both leading with their left foot. The statue is a modern work of art, unlike the late 19th century woman, the ca. 16th century aristocrat, and ca. 18th century officer. Like the statue, our worker is modern not tied to a previous historical period.
Can we be certain this sculpture is indeed from the 20th century? I firmly believe the answer is yes. On the pedestal on which the sculpture rests is written “oselsio.” This is in all likelihood a reference to the early to mid 20th century sculptor Simon Moselsio. Moselsio was a contemporary of Rockwell. He did create sculptures that somewhat resemble the sculpture Rockwell includes in Framed, as seen below. Thus Rockwell chose to include a modern sculpture in his fictitious gallery. This modern work of art is directly tied to the museum worker through stance and movement. This in turn supports the notion that the ideal tied to the worker, that all men are created equal, is alive while other notions about social status have become tied to the past. Most importantly, if Rockwell was indeed attempting to reflect social equality through Framed, in a manner reminiscent of his attempt to reflect important classical liberal ideals in his Four Freedom series, then this painting is also a reminder that Rockwell clearly was more than just an illustrator.