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Artists portrayed strength, heroism of fatherhood

Americans in the 21st century have to pull from the past to find the role of fatherhood portrayed in iconic fine art paintings. Photographs exist, as do portraits of men … such as the U.S. presidents, but paintings depicting men as fathers are rare compared to paintings of Mother Mary and other representations of mothers.

The Vatican’s Sistine Chapel ceiling panel, commonly called “The Creation,” is the ultimate “father” painting. It depicts Father God, reaching to the fingers of newly created Adam, father of earthly humans. Michelangelo painted it between 1508-1511 and used Pope Julius II, his own father and the zealot monk Savonarola as inspiration. Fierceness and absolutism can be seen in the body language of God, and meekness in Adam.

Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post magazines usually had his cover art focusing on holidays and popular culture. Father’s Day covers could have been interchangeable with Independence Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day or any of the other military holidays. Dad could be any or all of those military men.

Rockwell’s art was used to sell magazines. The early-to-mid-20th century’s “Post” sold at corner newspaper/magazine racks because his images on the covers related to America’s post-World War II citizens. It was also used to help build patriotism and support for troops in battle. We can see his work still being a part (usually caricatured or otherwise altered) of sales campaigns to promote traditional themes. Not all artists portrayed fatherhood that way. Some didn’t even need to show a man in their art to project a father’s impact.

Winslow Homer didn’t need to show dad in his painting “Dad’s Coming.”

The 1873 painting shows a family waiting on a beach for dad’s return. The young boy balances high on an overturned boat, looking far out to sea. His mom, baby in arms, is behind him, looking down in a sad, accepting expression. Dad isn’t coming today … and in that fishing village of Gloucester, Massachusetts, it’s highly possible dad won’t ever be home again. A fisherman’s work is dangerous. The sea is both a life-giver and a life-taker.

Images may show dad accepting his responsibility as head of the household. Father figures do have dangerous or depressing undertones. The reason is pretty simple: fathers who are in the military, working in dangerous jobs, or are shown laboring in in some dangerous area … don’t usually live very long. They can die working and some work themselves to death.

American popular culture demands that men are shown stoic, poker-faced and in some heroic or military setting. Fathers and grandfathers can be shown “softer” with grandma, serving turkey at Thanksgiving. But the younger men frequently were portrayed wearing uniforms, giving the composition an “uncomfortable” feeling of pending doom … or death. The undertones of Father’s Day are acceptance of dad’s short-lived role, providing for and protector of his family. And to our dads, the military, in the prairies of the Upper Midwest and other regions, we tip our hat and say thanks for all you do. Happy Father’s Day.

If anyone has an item for this column, please send to Sharon Cox, PO Box 1559, Jamestown, ND 58402-1559.