While lines stretched around the glass walls of Crystal Bridges for those waiting for the touring exhibition of Norman Rockwell, a fixture of the museum, “Rosie the Riveter,” received standing-room only status in the gallery for a lecture of his iconic painting.
The 52-by-40-inch oil on canvas depicts “Rosie” on her lunch break, with rivet gun on her lap, sandwich in hand, sitting on a pedestal while her foot rests on a copy of “Mein Kampf.” The work was for the Saturday Evening Post on Memorial Day 1943.
Among other attributes of Crystal Bridges, it is nothing but accessible for those of the non-collector, art historian crowd. Director of Education and Exhibitions Niki Stewart paired with Assistant Professor of Political Science in the William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences Angie Maxwell for an installment of “Art Talks.” It pairs an art historian with scholars to hold public conversations about a single work.
Stewart opened the lecture in front of more than 30 people of different generations by observing certain characteristics of the work from top to bottom. The prominence of the United States Flag, a halo around Rosie, hair color, pins on her uniform, coveralls, rivet gun, lunch box, loafers not boots and the copy of “Mein Kampf.”
Stewart wanted the room to look at the painting before interpreting it.
“If Angie and I saw the same things [in the painting] when interpreting, we would not be very honest,” Stewart said.
The work is a favorite among both women who see it in very different lights.
Stewart with her art history background and illustrator background speaks to the pose Rosie is striking. She said during this time of Rockwell, his works became more political.
In 1943 during World War II, when Rosie was created, it came after the popular song about a patriotic female defense worker called Rosie the Riveter. Rockwell found a model in his hometown for Rosie. She was 19 year old Mary Doyle. She was a slight-figured telephone clerk. She sat for Rockwell not knowing the final Rosie would be muscular and powerful looking while keeping her lipstick and nail polish perfectly in place.
“He wanted to make a strong physical woman,” Stewart said, “It might not be what was at the time but it’s what we felt.”
The pose mimics one from the Sistine Chapel that Michelangelo drew of the prophet Isaiah. He was called to God to convert the wicked from the sinful ways of evildoers under foot. Much as Rosie has Adolf Hitler’s book under hers. Both Isaiah and Rosie also sport halos above their heads.
Both women said Rosie the Riveter is one of the most important works in both their fields.
“Gender roles are very emotional,” Maxwell said.
Her scholarly comparisons come from the former first lady of Arkansas, Hillary Clinton.
“People were obsessed with her hair, what she wore and they tried to feminize her ... and now whether you like her politics or not ... people are talking about what she says and not about her hair. She’s transcended gender space like Rosie.”
Rockwell created 323 Saturday Evening Post covers and another 100 for Look and Stewart said this lone figure of Rockwell is him trying to reinvent the way he makes pictures. She said it’s a figure and its narrative but also contains a political message.
“She’s a turning point of the way he approaches his work. He’s not thinking so much of details but more of concept,” Stewart said, “Depending of your generation, it’s emotional and it’s a memory. People show up at the museum trying to find themselves reflected back. Rosie is a symbol of ‘I can do anything.’”
“The American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell” is on display at Crystal Bridges until Monday, May 27.