- The Washington Times - Monday, July 3, 2000

'Tis the season to unfurl the red, white and blue. Cornucopias runneth over with yellow corn, red tomatoes, and long green beans. Wicker baskets overflow with melons as plump as pigs, with berries in black, blue and red, juicy peaches, plums, cherries and figs. Fireflies tease a night as dark as old rum, scattering dots of color in the warm evening in prelude to high-tech fireworks that light up the sky with bombs bursting in air.The Fourth of July is apple pie and summer cotton, Whitmanesque in acclaiming the word "democratic" and pure Proustian in its appeal to the remembrances of celebrations past. Not even the most ardent bureaucrat dares tamper with the date. The Fourth has escaped the Monday holiday syndrome that sacrifices history for long weekends.

The Fourth is The Fourth is The Fourth, as Gertrude Stein might have said. It's a chocolate, vanilla and strawberry ice cream kind of day, as American as Hagen and Dasz. Its artist is Norman Rockwell, quintessentially appealing to the common man, woman, and child of the small town, elevated by the commonplace in a country that continues to stretch the boundaries of egalitarianism and broaden a bounty beyond the dreams of avarice.

These thoughts (as purple as the mountain's majesty above the fruited plain) are inspired by an exhibit titled "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People" that is touring the country and presently resides in the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. What a bonus for this show to be in the capital, so close to the Mall when Americans from all over are here to watch the fireworks.

The American art world is finally re-evaluating Norman Rockwell, appreciating his skill and subject matter so derided and dismissed as mere illustration by the elites and radicals when he was alive. His characters no longer evoke cornball sentimentalism, not even to the sophisticated critics. In fact, some critics now compare his work to that of the 19th-century French satirist Honore Daumier, and to the two splendid 17th century Dutch painters, Jan Vermeer and Frans Hals. The final destination for the traveling show is the prestigious Guggenheim Museum in New York. Critics of yore are spinning over that one.

In Rockwell paintings we find America's Everyfamily, the hometown boy and girl, mother and father, grandmother and grandfather who built on the dream of our Founding Fathers. They are as individualized as universalized, with the fruits of the Declaration of Independence spilling into our daily lives.

When the Saturday Evening Post asked its readers in 1955 to pick the Norman Rockwell cover they liked the best, most chose "Saying Grace," a plain and homely grandmother and grandson are depicted saying a blessing before a meal in a restaurant as others watch with nonchalance. It's about faith and tolerance, the religious and secular coexistent in the landscape of everyday life. The painting is free of an overt message you'll find no preaching here but it's an emblematic snapshot of continuity in a country where social mores are forever changing. Prayer is part of the mix. So is the gratitude for the bounty of the table.

My favorite Rockwell is "Shuffleton's Barber Shop." The details are painted with an exquisite virtuosity of perspective. The barber shop in the foreground of the painting is dark because it is closed, and a group of men have gathered together in a well-lighted barely visible back room where two men are tuning a violin and a clarinet. An easy and secure masculinity pervades the canvas, documenting a more innocent time when men gathered in fellowship after the day's work, the entrepreneurial spirit at leisure.

Norman Rockwell weaves a narrative for our Independence Day with both a big and little "i," idealism to the specifics of American realism. As a nation we've always celebrated the Fourth of July by combining patriotism with picnics, fireworks with fireflies, love of country with love of family, the commonplace in the context of community, the hope, joy, poignancy and promise that resides in every American moment.

Here are American dreams rather than the American Dream. The dog underfoot, the adolescent anxious for her future, the black child nervously on her way into a white school, groaning gossips and wailing babies, homecomings and shortcomings, the awesome concealed in the ordinary fleeting moments preserved for future reflection. On the Fourth of July, we're all thankful for an amazing grace.

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