Rosie the Riveter as an Icon of Human Possibility

Rosie the Riveter as an Icon of Human Possibility March 21, 2023

Norman Rockwell’s painting for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in 1943 featured Rosie the Riviter. (Saturday Evening Post.)




Rosie the Riveter as an Icon of Human Possibility

In 2017 the US Congress designated today, the 21st of March as National Rosie the Riveter Day.

Of course it is now well more than three quarters of a century since the Second World War, even my cohort, the children of those who lived through that time, are beginning to die off. So we’re less and less talking memory, and more and more talking history.

But of the propaganda images from that war, one I hope will continue on as an icon of possibilities is Rosie the Riveter. For me most especially the one created by Norman Rockwell.

Wile Rockwell could be and often was sentimental, he also touched much deeper currents of the human heart. Clearly he understood love as something more than sentiment, and his paintings celebrated human nobility over and over again. Of Rockwell’s work “Rosie the Riveter” ranks for me with “The Problem We All Live With,” as the most important of his paintings.

The painting is exactly based upon one by Michelangelo; his portrayal of the prophet Isaiah on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Right down to the arc of the arm, although in the original without the ham sandwich. I suggest there is something to stop and reflect on here.

It’s quite literally an icon, drawing upon themes used for images of Mary in both the Eastern and Western churches. Not to mention even older goddess images, hard not to find distant echoes of Ishtar, of Inanna, of Athena. Of Kali. This is a perennial. With those muscles, but that delightful upturned nose and wearing makeup, that rivet gun in her lap, and her foot resting on Mein Kampf; thinking of it and his masterful use of classic religious themes just thrills me. As, I said, it was the most powerful image in my mind continuing from that visit.

After years in private hands Rosie now hangs in the Crystal Bridges museum in Bentonville, Arkansas.

I suggest as we contemplate Rosie, we think not only of how people pulled together in the second world war or the echoes of Mary and other goddesses throughout time, but also there’s something prophetic here. There is a proclamation here, and I absolutely don’t think it over the top to say a divine proclamation. Rosie is a prescient image, a foreshadowing of something amazing that is going on in our times. It is a call to a holy project, something we are caught up in, and to which we need to recall ourselves, and, I believe, recommit ourselves to in a more conscious way. It has to do with the saving of humanity, and the particular shape of that saving today.

I think of Rosie. I think of her muscles and that dab of makeup.

I think of her foot on the bible of evil.

There we find an archetype for all of us, an icon of a world that can be.

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