Norman Rockwell’s “Family Tree”

Norman Rockwell, "Family Tree"

“For me, the story is the first thing and the last thing.”

— Norman Rockwell

Today, I had the opportunity to visit the North Carolina Museum of Art to view the exhibit they had put together of Norman Rockwell’s work. Today was the last day of the exhibit, so it was “now or never.”

What an amazing collection! From the early Boys Life pieces to the Saturday Evening Post covers, to the later pieces on civil rights, you can easily see the trajectory of the artist’s work, his increasing facility, and his growing bravery in dealing with the world as it is, not in simply the idealized way we think of when we think of Norman Rockwell.

As a genealogist, I could not help but notice the work “Family Tree.” Rockwell shows descent from a pirate and his paramour, through Confederate and Union soldiers and through Native Americans and prospectors. When asked about starting the tree with a pirate, Rockwell is reported to have said that everyone has “a horse thief or two in the family.” This is a whimsical diagram of the proper and the profane in all of our backgrounds.

The exhibit begins and ends with a quotation from Norman Rockwell: “For me, the story is the first thing and the last thing.” This is what genealogists are engaged in — not merely the cataloguing of dates of birth, marriage, and death — but teasing out the first and last things that can be discovered in our family histories, what I like to call “history at ground level.”

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