Norman Rockwell and Marital Abuse

 Posted by on 4 January 2013 at 10:00 am  Art, Ethics, Marriage, Rights
Jan 042013

This series of Norman Rockwell paintings, compared with photographs used to created them, is pretty interesting. Wow though, I had a huge emotional reaction to this photo and painting:

I abhor that painting, particularly in comparison to the photo.

In the photo, the man is clearly obstinate and angry for unknown reasons, and the woman is concerned, appealing, and uncertain. We don’t know the story of their marriage, but it’s a stark image of marital strife.

In the painting, however, the man has a very black eye, but he looks more aloof than angry. The woman is looking at him in a sly and smug way. The painting seems to be winking at serious physical abuse.

If you think that it’s cute or funny, would you say the same if the sexes were reversed? I think not. The fact is that physical abuse in a marriage is abhorrent, whether perpetrated by a woman or a man. Nothing justifies it. Nothing.

  • RayH

    Diana I think you ought to lighten up on old Norman. After all he is limited by the insight of the cultural values of the time. I am glad to see that someone is pointing out that this represents a negative aspect to the romantcising of the values of that time period and humor over a woman inflicting pain upon her physically stronger spouse. As to the difference of the picture and the painting, models rarely get the depection of their roles and facial expressions as accurately as trained actors so I would not expect an exact replication of the expressions there. But they probably are more expressive of the reality of the day in the picture.

  • Kelly Valenzuela

    I disliked this painting at first as well, then the more I looked at it and thought about it, I’m not sure I agree.

    For one thing, Rockwell appears to have a good sense of life, based on his other paintings, and he also appears to accurately capture the spirit of American culture in his day.

    Keeping that in mind, when I look at the painting, the husband almost appears unhappy he got caught doing something and is being forced into therapy. He appears stubborn, defiant, with perhaps a hint of guilt. Maybe he came home from work drunk, again, and tried to force himself on her (which would’ve been more culturally, although not morally, acceptable at that time), and she acted in self-defense?

    Her posture suggests she’s humbled or sorry, but her eyes give her away. Perhaps they’re saying, “Yeah, you’re not going to get away with this unacceptable behavior anymore.”

    Neither scenario is a good one, but both parties seem to acknowledge there’s a problem. They are at a marriage counselor’s office after all!

    At any rate, the painting made me ponder several different scenarios, some morally acceptable, and most not. Maybe Rockwell was questioning the reversal of the sexes? Perhaps he wasn’t satisfied with the double standard either? Maybe he was trying to get us to think about it too. If so, the painting is quite effective.

  • Kelly Valenzuela

    And now that I’m looking at the photo more closely, I dislike it for several reasons too. Primarily, it seems to typify the way most Americans think of mental health, “Maybe you need it, but I certainly don’t!” If more Americans, particularly men and war veterans, were more open to getting help when they need it, we’d have a much healthier society.

  • James

    The man in the pictures is interesting. In both he is cold and distant, but in the photo that’s all he is. In the picture he’s cold and distant in a clear attempt to hide some emotions. In the photo the man radiates an air of superiority–not of objective, or even measurable superiority, the way a master craftsman treats an apprentice that did something wrong, but rather of inherent superiority, the way a baron would treat a serf that displeased him. In the second there’s a very strong sense of “Never let them see you bleed”. The woman is just annoying in the photo–fawning, eager to please her man. It’s the look my dog gives me when he thinks I’m upset at him. The painting could very easily be Lillian Rearden. There’s no one in any of the pictures that I’d want to spend time with, with the possible exception of the man in the painting–and then it’s only because I might be able to help him save himself. At least he seems to recognize that there’s a problem. The fact that they’re at a councelor doesn’t say much one way or the other. In some states I believe marriage counceling is required before getting divoriced–and you can be damn sure that if my wife beat me that’d be where things were heading (if I beat her it’d be the morgue for me, so that’s a non-issue). As for the idea that Rockwell was subverting norms, that may have been true at the time, but I’d like to see more evidence of it. And even if it’s true, that subversion is the new norm. Men in today’s media are frequently viewed as the punching bags of their superior wives–just watch any sitcom that involves a married couple. That’s the problem with subversion, and all edgy art really: norms change, and the subversive becomes the accepted, and suddenly your edgy, provocative artwork loses all meaning and becomes just one more example of a very common, trite social theme. The bottom picture is, incidently, everything that’s wrong with the concept of chivalry as we know it (the actual code is vastly different from the twisted Victorian version). I’ve met innumerable women who thought they could do anything they wanted, up to and including physically attacking men, and if the man lifted a finger to protect himself he was the bad guy because “REAL men don’t hit women”.

  • Jim May

    My initial reading on the painting was that it’s a “who’s really wearing the pants in this relationship?” type of humor. The man in the photo has a much stronger set to his face and jawline, while painting-man has been given a much smaller jaw with a likely underbite, stylistic choices which convey “wimp” to me — and a mortified one, at that. The woman’s expression suggests that she has his dick in her purse (figuratively speaking). It might have been funny in it’s day, in that it plays upon the sort of fears that men of the mid-20th might have and kid each other about, but don’t expect to happen in reality. That there was violence seems almost secondary, except that it’s the primary item that conveys the emasculation.

    In today’s context, it just comes off to me as trite modern feminism, akin to all the “men are dumb” stereotypes we see in TV ads these days.

    I don’t care for it either.

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