I was surprised by the answer when I asked my friend Ron about his plans for Christmas this year. “Well, let’s just say it’s not going to be a Norman Rockwell Christmas for me,” he replied. Ron meant this to be humorous, but there was clearly a touch of pain in his voice as well.
Although many young people have never even heard of Norman Rockwell, he was a famous painter and illustrator in the last century. Regardless of whether you know his name, you’ve no doubt seen some of his pictures of American families.
Rockwell was known for portraying family life at its best. His renowned pictures of Christmas or Thanksgiving typically showed a happy scene of four generations around the holiday dinner table – grandparents, parents, adult children, and grandchildren. Everyone was there, with smiling faces and plenty of tasty food.
Holidays aren’t like that for my friend Ron anymore. Everything changed when he got divorced a few years back, and several of his kids are missing because they now live in other parts of the country. Ron’s family is fractured, and holidays are nothing like a Norman Rockwell painting.
Perhaps you can relate to my friend’s story. For many of us, the ideal and the actual seem very far apart these days.
The Truth About Norman Rockwell
Ron’s situation got me wondering about Norman Rockwell. What was his life like “behind the canvas”? Did he actually enjoy the perfect family life depicted in his illustrations?
I did some research on this, and my findings were rather shocking. Rockwell’s life was a lot like Ron’s!
After more than a decade of marriage, Rockwell and his wife Irene got divorced. This was quite depressing. But Rockwell married again after just a few months, this time to a schoolteacher named Mary.
The couple had three children, but this second wife became mentally unstable and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for treatment. Mary then died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1959, adding grief to Rockwell’s already distressing life. A few years later, he married again.
Though celebrated in his career, Rockwell continued to experience periodic bouts of depression. His psychiatrist would later tell a biographer, “Norman painted his happiness, but did not live it.”
What a fascinating statement! As a preacher and Bible teacher, I must frequently challenge myself with this same principle: Am I truly living the things I teach to others? Does my life exemplify the love, joy, and peace I enthusiastically preach about?
Behind the Curtain
The next time you see one of Norman Rockwell’s cheerful holiday paintings, it will be helpful to remember what was going on behind the scenes. On the positive side, it’s good that he refused to allow his personal traumas to keep him from fulfilling his calling to bless the world with beautiful, uplifting art.
But on other side of the coin, I wonder if Rockwell’s story makes him a forerunner of today’s social media, where we post our “highlight reels” but hide what we’re really going through. Nearly every week, one of my friends posts on Facebook or Instagram about their “amazing” spouse and kids – the same spouse and kids they angrily complained about the last time we talked.
I’m convinced we’ll never find healing until we take off our masks and get real. This isn’t always easy for preachers or for painters, but it’s necessary just the same.
Despite his personal brokenness, Rockwell’s paintings seem to remind us of a bygone era, when life was simpler and a greater percentage of families were still intact. I think we can learn lessons both from his art and from his broken life. It’s possible we have a lot in common with him.