Father's Help by Norman Rockwell.
The party is over, and Mother, too weary even to put away her pearl necklace, relaxes with her knitting. But for the men of the family there's work to be done. Teacher's given an assignment, and party or not, it's due on her desk in the morning. So the son dutifully opens his book and sits down to the task. But the long page filled with numbers is too much for a boy with sleep in his eyes. Fortunately, Father's there to help— and that makes all the difference.
"Father's Help" presents a warmly human tableau that touches, but certainly does not surprise, a modern audience. However, to Norman Rockwell's contemporaries the scene was undoubtedly something new. This father is not the distant, European papa who ruled his family with an iron hand; he is, instead, the twentieth-century man—a friend and loving companion to his wife and children.
A profound change in the fabric of family life was taking place in the twenties, and Norman Rockwell, the premier artistic interpreter of the American scene, was among the first to recognize it.
One of the ongoing revelations of the Light Campaign paintings is this: the electric light, and the new technologies it symbolizes, strengthened the family by increasing the freedom of its members. The "new daylight" opened up the evening—the one time when all family members can be together—to many different activities. Here, the father uses it to get to know his son better and help him with a difficult problem; in the flickering dim of the gas lamp this scene could hardly have taken place.
In the American Family Rockwell discovered through his Light Campaign and continued to paint for nearly sixty years, certain comforting harmonies apply: when there's a job to be done, someone does it; and when help is needed, someone's there to give it. "Father's Help" is, perhaps, Rockwell's first and clearest state¬ment of that optimistic vision of family life.
A close look at "Father's Help" confirms that Rockwell is, indeed, offering a profound meditation on the power of paternal love. Here, clearly, is a family just returned from some sort of weekday celebration; their shortened night's sleep will surely be followed by a hard day's work. Weariness is written in the mother's downcast eyes, the son's slumped posture, the father's fixed stare. It would be easy enough to say—as we all have on such occasions—"Let's put it up for the night, son. I'll write your teacher a note in the morning."
But that isn't the lesson this Rockwell father wants his son to learn. So he pulls up his own chair and helps the boy wade through the formidable page of figures, and teaches his son—and us, too, through this remarkable composition—a valuable lesson on the duties imposed by the heart.
"Father's Help" not only bears witness to Rockwell's ability to communicate truths of the heart, it demonstrates his growing mastery of technique as well. In this composition the atmosphere is som¬nolent and heavy, and the contrast between light and dark especially dramatic; in addition Rockwell—as he must in all the Light Campaign paintings—conveys the quality of the new electric light.
The background of muted browns and greys reinforced by the strong vertical lines of the drapes seems to bear down on the family with the full weight of their weariness; it also suggests the prison of darkness broken by the lamp. Against that background the lamplight brilliantly illuminates fleshtones and white; in an in¬spired stroke, Rockwell binds this family along an arc of light from mother through son to father. The dramatic effect strongly recalls the experiments with theatrical lighting conducted by the Italian mannerist painters in the sixteenth century. "Father's Help" is certainly one of Norman Rockwell's most in¬sightful explorations of family life; more than that, it is a compelling work of art that touches our hearts even before it informs our minds.
- Item #: p0459