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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