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May|June 2002

The Law Student

The artistic reputation of Norman Rockwell is being transformed, thanks partly to paintings like "The Law Student (Young Lawyer)." Critics have long pigeonholed Rockwell as a popular illustrator of sentimental American scenes, a commercial artist whose work ranged from impish depictions of children at play to grand, patriotic images that served to advertise war bonds during World War II. In the past few years, though, admirers have recast Rockwell in the role of a great American painter. Supporters cite, among other things, his insightful treatment of historical subjects—especially his many well-known likenesses of Abraham Lincoln.

In 1927, in honor of Lincoln's 118th birthday, Rockwell painted "The Law Student" for The Saturday Evening Post. As the art historian Anne Knutson observes, the painting is more than a portrait of a young man absorbed in study; it also portrays "the Horatio Alger myth" and the "timeless" qualities of "industry, thrift, determination, honesty" that would "help American youth succeed in the twentieth century." In particular, the painting captures the student's inspiration: his faith that Lincoln's profession is a ticket to honored opportunity.

Seventy-five years later, so much for timelessness. Though many lawyers in the period that Rockwell depicts in "The Law Student" were cheats and charlatans, his painting evokes a dignified conception of the legal profession that held its own against more jaundiced views. For today's law student, the quiet confidence of Rockwell's student—the assurance that he's entering a noble line of work—is a thing of the past. Like Rockwell's reputation, the reputation of lawyers has been turned upside down.

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