Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter (1943) will be useful for the study of:
- women’s rights and gender roles in the mid-20th century
- the contribution of women to the war effort
- U.S. participation in World War II
- the United States and Allied victory over the Axis powers
- the rise of Nazi Germany
By the end of this lesson, students should be able to:
- discuss Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter as a primary document that links to its specific historical context during the Second World War
- understand the significance of women’s participation in the war effort
- apply the tools of visual analysis to support interpretation of the artwork
- identify and elaborate on certain key issues related to Work, Exchange, and Technology, prompted by an example of American art
1. Look closely at the painting
Look closely at Rosie the Riveter by Norman Rockwell (zoomable images, also available for download for teaching)
Questions to ask:
- Describe the figure, including her expression, the position of her body, her clothing.
- Try to sit like the figure. Does it feel natural?
- How much of the composition is taken up by the figure?
- What does the clothing depicted tell us about Rosie?
- Rockwell is known for his realistic depiction of details and textures. What do you notice that heightens this sense of realism?
- In what ways is this image not real at all? Why might Rockwell have made those decisions?
2. Watch the video
The video on Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter is only 7 minutes in length. Ideally, the video should provide an active rather than a passive classroom experience. Please feel free to stop the video to respond to student questions, to underscore or develop issues, to define vocabulary, or to look closely at parts of the painting that are being discussed. Key points, a self-diagnostic quiz, and high resolution photographs with details are provided to support the video.
3. Read about the painting and its historical context
Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter is just one of a number of illustrations associated with this female character hard at work for the war effort who first appeared in song in 1942. For other images, see Rosie Pictures: Select Images Relating to American Women Workers During World War II (Library of Congress)
A sense of continuity with the past
A sense of continuity with the past helps maintain stability in the midst of change. Beginning in the 1910s, the illustrator Norman Rockwell gave this to mass audiences in abundance. In Rockwell’s America, cars, television antennae, and other complications of modern life are framed and defined by the persistence of the past, which lies reassuringly just beneath the thin veneer of modernity.
Rockwell is one of a handful of household names among America’s image-makers who are broadly familiar to the general public. Yet, until recently, those who were serious about fine art-critics, museum curators, men and women of “taste” would have nothing to do with him. He was maligned for giving audiences what they wanted—a vision of a national life that never existed—rather than confronting them with difficult dilemmas (although he did take on race prejudice and the Civil Rights movement in a series of late works). In addition, he was merely an illustrator; most of his work was done for the Saturday Evening Post, a mass circulation middlebrow journal for which he produced 322 covers between 1916 and 1963….His critics believed that illustration required less skill than art: modern artists transform reality rather than merely mirror it. Yet the notion that illustration—and artistic naturalism more generally—is less “artful” than other forms of image-making is belied by Rockwell’s compositions. He shows us not the way things were, but the ways in which many Americans wanted to believe they were….
The American way of life
Rockwell’s images embodied “The American Way of Life,” a populist notion of shared national character and core values. His magazine covers (often reprinted as posters) speak in a voice of social inclusiveness and shared humor. They imply a confidence that, confronted with the situations shown, we will respond the same way as Rockwell’s subjects themselves.
Rockwell’s exacting realism gave his depictions a feel of authenticity. From the 1930s on, his work enjoyed such wide circulation that at times it seemed to take the place of lived memories, reshaping the recollection of national life. Like the family snapshot that stands in for, and ultimately replaces, the actual event, his illustrations have, for many Americans then and now, become “our America.” Yet those who do not recognize Rockwell’s America as theirs feel a sense of alienation: “Where am I in this picture?”
Paradoxically, Rockwell’s rise to fame between the world wars coincided with a time of unprecedented movement away from the ideals his images represent: small-town, face-to-face, rooted in stable social identity. In his upbringing, Rockwell himself had little direct experience of the small-town life he depicted on the covers of the Saturday Evening Post. His nostalgic vision was avidly consumed by millions of Post readers, yet the Post was a part of the national media, the newspapers and broadcasting, that were displacing regional and local identity. The consumer culture advertised by mass circulation magazines was taking the place of the older way of life commemorated in Rockwell’s images. His appeal to the purportedly universal elements connecting people across class, regional, and ethnic lines was something that linked him to other purveyors of mass culture, such as his friend Walt Disney.
From Angela L. Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J. Wolf, and Jennifer L. Roberts, American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity (Washington University Libraries, 2018), p. 254, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 (available for free download)
4. Discussion questions
- Rockwell gives is an ideal image of a woman who symbolizes America’s confidence and resilience, at a difficult time that tested those very values in the American people. Can you think of another image that offers an ideal, instead of presenting reality?
- Rosie was a famous character before Rockwell’s illustration. Compare the image from the cover of the published music to the 1942 song with Rockwell’s painting. What are the differences and similarities?
5. Research question
In what ways was the experiences of “real” Rosies (actual women who went to work for the war effort) different from Rockwell’s depiction? Were there groups of people who were not able to or discouraged from contributing to the war effort?
This painting at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
Rosie the Riveter from the Norman Rockwell Museum
Rosie the Riveter: Real Women Workers in World War II from the Library of Congress
The Real Rosie the Riveter Project from NYU
Theresa Kaminski, “Complicating Rosie the Riveter,” OUP Blog
Maureen Honey, Creating Rosie the Riveter: Class, Gender, and Propaganda During World War II (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984).
James J. Kimble and Lester C. Olson. “Visual Rhetoric Representing Rosie the Riveter: Myth and Misconception in J. Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It!” Poster.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs, vol. 9, no. 4 (2006), pp. 533-569.
Carolyn L Kitch, The Girl on the Magazine Cover: The Origins of Visual Stereotypes in American Mass Media (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2001).
Donna B. Knaff, Beyond Rosie the Riveter: Women of World War II in American Popular Graphic Art (Lawrence: The University Press of Kansas, 2012).
Melissa McEuen, Making War, Making Women: Femininity and Duty on the American Home Front 1941-1945 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011).