Our blessings

Roosevelt called for freedom worldwide. Norman Rockwell’s paintings were so distinctly American, however, that they came to represent us.

Freedom from Want, c. 1941-45, Norman Rockwell, courtesy National Archives at College Park

I had a painting teacher who hated Norman Rockwell. She was in tune with the art establishment of her time, which derided him as ‘just an illustrator.’ In fact, Rockwell understood painting just fine. Very few artists of any time could have balanced the plane of the table in Freedom from Want so elegantly.

Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms were meant to illustrate a passage from President Franklin Roosevelt’s State of the Union address of January 6, 1941. Nazi Germany occupied most of Western Europe, and the outlook for western culture looked grim. America was still steadfastly isolationist. Roosevelt exhorted his fellow Americans to think beyond our own borders. His Four Freedoms were universal rights of mankind, and he felt an obligation for America to help preserve them in Europe.
Freedom of Speech, c. 1941-45, Norman Rockwell, courtesy National Archives at College Park
Norman Rockwell’s paintings, however, were so idiosyncratically American that they have come to represent us. Freedom from Want is now irrevocably entwined with the American holiday season, which kicks off tomorrow.
The foil for the whole painting is the white-on-white table, surrounded by a wreath of faces. If you’ve ever wondered about Rockwell’s legacy as a painter, study that table. He’s as brilliant with the whites as Joaquín Sorolla, but in a cooler, more American way.
Freedom of Worship, c. 1941-45, Norman Rockwell, courtesy National Archives at College Park
He painted the figures from life, using his friends and neighbors as models. About the turkey, Rockwell said, “Our cook cooked it, I painted it and we ate it. That was one of the few times I’ve ever eaten the model.”
There’s almost no other food on the table. Such is the magic of his realism that Rockwell makes you believe it’s an overloaded table. In fact, that was the criticism of it at the time, that it depicted indulgence while Europe was starving.
Freedom from Fear, c. 1941-45, Norman Rockwell, courtesy National Archives at College Park
We’re so swamped in bad news that it’s easy to forget how blessed we are. “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy,” wrote Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen. Americans are particularly blessed with freedom of speech: in 2015, the Pew Research Center polled 38 countries around the world in 2015 and found that Americans are more tolerant of free speech than other nations.
Fear is tough to measure as it’s subjective. However, attacks on American soil have been blessedly few; most of our wounds are self-inflicted. And we are free to worship where we want, and to have lively debates in court and the media when religious rights and other rights intersect.
If you say grace tomorrow, you could do worse than thanking God for the four freedoms enumerated by President Roosevelt all those years ago.
Have a very blessed holiday! (There will be no blog tomorrow.)

The art of the Great Depression

Santa Fe, the visionary New Deal, and the start of a new American art movement.
The Voice of the Earth (The Basket Dance), 1934, Will Schuster, courtesy New Mexico Museum of Art.

In 1934, one in four American workers were idled. The government stepped in with programs we would eventually lump together as the ‘New Deal’. Asked why the program included artists, WPA head Harry Hopkins replied, “Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people!”

That was only half the picture. Even in the depths of the Great Depression, the Roosevelt administration was keenly interested in advancing American culture. “I, too, have a dream—to show people in the out of the way places, some of whom are not only in small villages but in corners of New York City—something they cannot get from between the covers of books—some real paintings and prints and etchings and some real music,” Franklin Roosevelt wrote.
Tonight, I head out to Santa Fe for Plein Air Fiesta. Santa Fe is the capital and cultural center of New Mexico, and it is home to much New Deal art and architecture.
Acoma Trail, William Penhallow Henderson, courtesy US District Courthouse, Santa Fe.
William Shusterwent to New Mexico because he had tuberculosis secondary to being gassed in WWI. He was commissioned to paint murals at the New Mexico Museum of Art, portraying the traditional life of Native Americans.
Six murals by William Penhallow Henderson hang in the US District Court building. Henderson was a Boston-trained painter who went west for his wife’s tuberculosis. The courthouse recently acquired three more New Deal murals. These scenes of Navajo life were originally painted by Warren Rollinsfor a post office in Gallup.
The murals of Santa Fe were part of a series of Federal New Deal art programs. In the first four months of 1934, the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) hired 3,749 artists and produced 15,663 artworks for government buildings around the country.
Golden Gate Bridge, 1934, Ray Strong for PWAP. Franklin Delano Roosevelt liked it enough to hang it in the White House. Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum
“They had to prove they were professional artists, they had to pass a needs test, and then they were put into categories—Level One Artist, Level Two or Laborer—that determined their salaries,” said George Gurney of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Because the program was based on need, not skill, most of these artists have fallen into anonymity; the more famous Depression-era artists came from the Works Projects Administration. But the PWAP artists were instructed to paint ‘the American Scene,’ which in most cases meant landscapes populated by American workers. That makes their work an important historical record.
The murals in Santa Fe are among the 1400 New Deal murals in municipal buildings around the nation. There is one in the little post office in Middleport, NY, when I was growing up; there is one in the post office near Franklin Roosevelt’s grand house in Hyde Park.
These came from a successor project to PWAP, the Section of Painting and Sculpture. Its purpose was to select, administer, and pay for these public murals. Its mandate was to make high-quality art accessible to all people.
The focus was on buying excellent work, not work based on artists’ reputation or neediness. Artists were selected through blind jurying and were paid a lump sum for their efforts. In return, they were expected to create work that reflected the host communities. In practice, that meant that many of the artists were locals. Those who weren’t sometimes visited their towns. Others carried on lively correspondence with the postmaster. The paintings were done on 12’x5’ canvases that were then shipped and glued in place.
The New Deal not only kept artists alive during the Great Depression, it introduced Americans to the idea that there was something here worth painting. Along the way, it helped create an indigenous American art movement, Regionalism. More on that tomorrow.
It’s about time for you to consider your summer workshop plans. Join me on the American Eagle, at Acadia National Park, at Rye Art Center, or at Genesee Valley this summer.

Fifty paintings for a favorite American president

Friar’s Head in Winter, by Michael Chesley Johnson, oil on canvas
2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Roosevelt-Campobello International Park. It is one of my own favorite summer destinations, and I first visited it not long after it was made a park.
Duck Pond Marsh Sunset, by Michael Chesley Johnson, oil on canvas
“I’ve spent several years now painting the cottages and the landscape in the Park, and it has become a significant part of my life as a painter,” wrote Michael Chesley Johnson. To honor the park’s anniversary, Johnson has created a series of fifty paintings featuring scenes from the park. The paintings will be exhibited at the Park’s new restaurant, The Fireside, from July 19-August 16.
The Ice House, by Michael Chesley Johnson, oil on canvas
As a child and young adult, Franklin D. Roosevelt summered on Campobello Island, where he sailed, swam, and otherwise generally confronted nature in a way we wouldn’t dream of allowing our children to do today. After his marriage, he brought his young family. It was here in August 1921 that he was stricken with poliomyelitis. He rarely returned after that, but Eleanor Roosevelt and their children continued to visit. 
Snug Cove, by Michael Chesley Johnson, oil on canvas
Although the Roosevelts were a prominent business, social and political dynasty at the beginning of the 20th century, their cottage at Campobello is simple by the standards of the day. It is large (34 rooms), but almost austere; it was a family vacation home, not a mansion. 
The park surrounding it is truly an international park, managed jointly by the United States and Canada. Campobello Island is in the Bay of Fundy, which lies between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and touches the state of Maine. Roosevelt’s cottage is the centerpiece of the park, but there are other structures and 3000 acres of beaches, cliffs, meadows and bogs.
Glensevern Road Beach Swamp, by Michael Chesley Johnson, oil on canvas
I have two openings left for my 2014 workshop in Belfast, ME. Information is available here.

Freedom from want

Freedom from Want, Norman Rockwell, 1943
This Thanksgiving Day the average American will consume more than 4500 calories, accordingto the Calorie Control Council. I’m all for eating right, but I think the capacity of our nation to throw an annual bash is an unequivocally good thing.
Thanksgiving is the most universal of American holidays—celebrated by people of all religions, by new immigrants, and by wanderers like my friend Martha in Edinburgh, who has located a 6 kg. turkey and a circle of friends to share her holiday.
Freedom of Worship, Norman Rockwell, 1943
Perhaps that’s why Norman Rockwell chose it to illustrate Freedom from Want in his Four Freedoms series. The painting celebrates family, love, and happiness. Critics who call it an illustration of American overconsumption perhaps don’t notice that there is almost no food on that table. There is no wine; there is only water in plain, clear glasses. The black suit and white table are almost Puritan in effect. What abundance there is comes straight from the hosts’ hands, and the joy around the table comes from each other.
Freedom of Speech, Norman Rockwell, 1943
The arresting composition may be why this painting is one of Rockwell’s enduring favorites. Many of his covers for the Saturday Evening Post were done as one-dimensional knock-outs, with no perspective to speak of. This view from the bottom of the table, with its luminous white-on-white table set starkly against Grandpa’s black suit, is a masterwork of composition. (Rockwell said that it was the easiest of the four paintings.)
Freedom from Fear, Norman Rockwell, 1943
Rockwell painted the Four Freedoms in seven months’ time, during which he lost 15 lbs. They were based on President Franklin Roosevelt’s Annual Message to Congress in 1941, which were dark days for those in opposition to Nazi Germany. As we take time from holiday preparations, it’s worth contemplating Roosevelt’s words:
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!