I’ve always liked the art of Norman Rockwell, whose work illustrated much of the 20th century, often on magazine covers. Art critics typically dismissed Rockwell as a commercial hack rather than a true artist, but common folk who think a painting should look like something recognizable found in him an artist to whom they could relate. His glimpses of Americana, whether found on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post or the front of a cereal box, were almost invariably heart-warming. 

One of my favorite Rockwell paintings has always been his triple self-portrait, a painting that was motivated not by vanity but by a commission from the Post. It’s reminiscent of an earlier portrait he did of himself, viewed from behind, but facing a blank canvas while looking harried and scratching his head because he had a deadline to meet and no ideas about what to paint.

Rockwell’s painting, which pays tribute to other artists whose self-portraits are tacked to the top right corner of the canvas, is a reminder to me that we all have multiple dimensions. In the portrait, we see the “real” artist at work on his stool, a reflected image of the artist in the mirror, and a grayscale painting of himself on the painted canvas.

I doubt that Rockwell would assign any deep mystical meaning to the portrait — I suspect he just thought it would be a cute idea — but it reminds me that we all have physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects to our being.

In another way, the painting might suggest how we can think of our real self at work in the chair, the self that others see in the mirror, and the self we’d like to be still forming on the canvas. It’s a helpful reminder, I think, that none of us come into the world completely formed: the person we turn out to be is shaped in various ways throughout our lives, not only by the circumstances of our birth and family, but by our own efforts at physical, emotional, and spiritual formation.

Happy painting…

[An exhibit of Rockwell’s work remains on display through Jan. 30 of this month at the North Carolina Museum of Art.]

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