Published: June 12, 2001
By Stephen May
STOCKBRIDGE, MASS. – Returning home after a triumphant tour that confirmed its enduring popularity, the art of Norman Rockwell looks very much at home in the museum erected in his honor. Spread throughout the spacious galleries of The Norman Rockwell Museum are more than 70 of the artist’s original oil paintings and all 322 of his Saturday Evening Post covers.
They were seen by over 750,000 people during stops at prestigious museums in Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, San Diego, and Phoenix. After its run in Stockbridge concludes on October 21, “Norman Rockwell: ” will be at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum November 16 to March 3, 2002.
During its tour, what Rockwell Museum director Laurie Norton Moffatt appropriately terms “this big, glorious show” charmed both older viewers who grew up with Rockwell’s magazine covers and “a new generation…[that] discovered the power of Rockwell’s original paintings.”
Art and cultural critics, taking a new look at often-familiar images, found both fresh appeal and accomplished artwork in Rockwell’s oeuvre. The nationwide swing thus enhanced appreciation for the artist as a significant, serious painter and a figure of considerable aesthetic achievement, who made a lasting contribution to our artistic history.
The show is co-curated by Anne Knutson, guest curator at the High Museum of Art; Maureen Hart Hennessey, associate director for curatorial and professional affairs at the Rockwell Museum; and Judy L. Larson, former curator of American art at the High Museum and now executive director of The Art Museum of Western Virginia. The accompanying catalogue offers essays by the curators and others and numerous reproductions.
In many ways, Rockwell occupies a unique place in the history of illustration, which has always played a special role in the American cultural scene. Before television, magazines and newspapers were the principal sources of news and visual images for Americans. Our artist-illustrators thereby exerted considerable influence over the way we perceived ourselves and our country.
In part because generations of Americans recognized themselves in his pictures – albeit likely portrayed with greater vividness and wit than they could have described themselves – Rockwell became one of this nation’s most beloved artists. In a career that spanned much of the Twentieth Century, he chronicled both everyday moments and extraordinary events from World War I to the first moon landing, compiling a visual record of his era. Appearing frequently on covers of the mass circulation Saturday Evening Post, his pictures helped forge a sense of American identity and common values in turbulent times.
Rockwell became, in many senses, our national icon-maker and storyteller. His enormous success and enduring hold on the American psyche has inevitably fueled discussion as to whether he was a fine painter or simply an able illustrator. The current exhibition suggests he was both.
A simple, down-to-earth, pipe-smoking man who drew inspiration and models from the New Englanders among whom he lived, Rockwell was a skilled technician and exceptional communicator. Unlike many of the avant-garde artists who achieved prominence during the course of his career, his art needed no interpretation to be understood by the general public.
Rockwell’s adherence to traditional American values, conveyed in a realistic style, were out of step with modern art trends. While this contributed to his great public popularity, he was routinely dismissed by the art establishment as a sentimental recorder of an America that never was.
His wide appeal, confirmed over and over again by this exhibition, is unquestioned. “At a time when most people stared in bemusement at Jackson Pollock’s dribbled paint and [Pablo] Picasso’s fractured shapes, Rockwell was an artist they understood because he so clearly understood them,” says Moffatt.
In this context the current revival of interest in Rockwell’s art and the accompanying discussions about fine versus popular art, high versus low art, and easel painters versus illustrators have taken on lively and instructive dimensions.
Born in New York City, Rockwell (1894-1978) grew up admiring the illustrative work of Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth. Leaving school at 15, he studied at the National Academy of Design and Art Students League. Before he turned 20 he had created Christmas cards on commission, become art director of Boys’ Life, the official publication of the Boy Scouts, and launched a promising career as a freelance illustrator.
Soon after he moved with his family to suburban New Rochelle at age 21, the prestigious Saturday Evening Post published his first cover. Over the next half century he produced 321 more covers to the Post, all on view today in Stockbridge. In the 1960s, he switched to Look magazine, a publication that offered him greater leeway in terms of subject matter.
Beginning his career at a time when much of the art in American museums tended to be academic and oriented to Europe, Rockwell executed works that were familiar and readily accessible to the man in the street. His special gift was in depicting ordinary things that Americans liked about themselves – childhood escapades, neighborly kindnesses, family relationships, festive occasions. “I showed the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed,” he said.
Married with three sons, Rockwell moved in 1939 to a white clapboard house by a covered bridge in tiny Arlington, Vt., where his work reflected the small town, rural life of which he was a part. Today, that house is open for guests as the comfortable-looking Inn on Covered Bridge Green.
In his autobiography the artist said that in Arlington “I knew I had found what I wanted – new people, new surroundings. Now my pictures grew out of the world around me, the life of my neighbors. I didn’t fake things anymore. I just painted the things I saw.”
By all reports a genuinely unpretentious, nice guy, Rockwell fit easily into the rural Vermont lifestyle. He was well liked by townspeople, who willingly modeled for him. Several of the 200 residents of Arlington who modeled for Rockwell’s art nowadays help staff the Arlington Gallery in town, which perpetuates the artist’s memory with exhibitions, reproductions, and memorabilia.
Neighbors, friends, and indeed his whole family got into the act in “Christmas Homecoming,” which became a Post cover in 1948. Wife Mary embraces son Jarvis, while pipe-smoking Norman, middle son Tom (plaid shirt), and youngest son Peter (far left in glasses) look on. The artist’s friend, Grandma Moses, appears to the left.
In 1953 Rockwell moved his family to Stockbridge, Mass., where they occupied an old white-frame house that still stands across the street from the celebrated Red Lion Inn. The studio he built in the side yard is now on the museum grounds.
“I just love Stockbridge,” said Rockwell. “Stockbridge is the best of America, the best of New England.” As before, he used the people and places around him in his paintings.
Infatuated with painting, Rockwell worked in his studio seven days a week, all year around. Over seven decades he created some 4,000 works, including 800 magazine covers and ad campaigns for more than 150 companies.
Rockwell recognized the importance of his responsibilities as a leading illustrator. “No man with a conscience can just bat out illustrations,” he observed. “He’s got to put all of his talent, all of his feelings into them. If illustration is not considered art, then that is something that we have brought upon ourselves by not considering ourselves artists. I believe we should say, ‘I am not just an illustrator, I am an artist.'”
Poking fun at the challenges of his profession, Rockwell portrayed himself in “Artist Facing Blank Canvas (Deadline)” (1938) as a disheveled, disorganized painter confronting a clean canvas with a deadline looming. In “Triple Self-Portrait” (1960) he depicted himself in the act of painting, peering around his easel into a mirror.
The relaxed, offhand, often humorous look of Rockwell’s paintings belies his knowledge of world art and the painstaking effort that went into posing models, taking photographs, gathering props, and organizing compositions. Steeped in Old Master techniques, he also admired Picasso’s work and made a painting of Jackson Pollock the centerpiece of a wonderful canvas.
Reflecting Rockwell’s meticulous approach and knowledge of art, “Art Critic” (1955) shows a student copyist closely examining an Old Master portrait whose subject peers at him with equal interest while burghers in an adjoining canvas look askance. In preparing this delightful painting Rockwell studied Frans Hals’s dour Dutch matrons, Peter Paul Rubens’s flirtatious women, and photographs of his wife Mary’s changing expressions, before creating the subtly humorous look on the face of the lady in the final composition.
Rockwell rarely idealized or glamorized his subjects. His images, while uplifting, never became pompous. His humor was slyly mocking, but never cruel.
Humor was a staple of his art. In his first Post cover, “Boy with Baby Carriage” (1916), a dandified, dutiful lad pushing a perambulator endures the taunts of his ball-playing contemporaries. In “No Swimming” (1921), a quaint vision of American innocence, rather than depicting the idyllic swimming hole, he zeroed in on the frantic flight of the young trespassers – and their dog.
“Doctor and Doll” (1929) shows the faithful family physician listening intently as he applies his stethoscope to a young girl’s doll. “The Discovery” (1956) still brings a chuckle with its depiction of a wide-eyed youngster who has just found Santa Claus’s white whiskers and red suit in a drawer in his father’s bureau.
Rockwell’s intense patriotism and idealism achieved its fullest expression during World War II. His famous “Four Freedoms” pictures of 1943 exemplify his ability to encapsulate in a single image our traditions and shared national values.
The idea of illustrating the four basic human rights – freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear – grew out of references in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address. The series drew on the artist’s firsthand experiences in Arlington town meetings, in church, around the family dinner table, and with his children.
“I’ll express the ideas in simple, everyday scenes,” Rockwell said of the series. “Take them out of the noble language of the proclamation and put them in terms everybody can understand.”
Reproduced in the Post alongside explanatory essays, the “Four Freedoms” images provided wartime Americans with potent symbols of “why we fight” and became enormously popular. The original oil paintings toured the nation in a highly successful war bond drive. Making Rockwell a national hero, they are today omnipotent icons of American culture.
“Rosie the Riveter” (1943), the muscular war worker equipped with lunch box, sandwich, and riveting gun, with Hitler’s Mein Kampf underfoot, all framed by the American flag, came to symbolize contributions of women to the war effort.
Examples of Rockwell’s knack for elevating everyday incidents to new significance abound in the exhibition. “Saying Grace” (1951) depicts a grandmother and grandson praying in a crowded cafeteria, surrounded by gawking diners. The contrast between the neatly dressed, pious duo and their working-stiff tablemates, who clearly have not said grace, is delicious. Little wonder that “Saying Grace” was chosen by Post readers as their favorite cover.
The enduringly poignant “Girl at Mirror” (1954) depicts an anxious preteen comparing her reflection to a photograph of Hollywood sex siren Jane Russell. In “After the Prom” (1957) the soda-jerk sniffs the gardenia on the teenager’s dress as her proud date and a grizzled working man look on smilingly. These are wonderfully sympathetic recollections of the traumas and joys of coming of age.
In “The Gossips” (1948) a string of characters relay the word in a round-robin image. The couple filling out the form in the presence of the bemused clerk and his cat in “The Marriage License” (1955) recall a scene familiar to many who have gone through the same happy rite of passage.
And who can forget the winning image of the kid with his bindle sitting at the rural lunch counter with the nice cop and the understanding counterman in “The Runaway” (1958)?
These visual narratives, vivid, realistic, familiar, and filled with evocative details, have become lasting remembrances of American life. Over the years, Rockwell’s pictures helped ease the transition from the old to the new, offering people a sense of identity and comfort as they were confronted with a seemingly endless series of changes. Among other things, “Going and Coming” (1947), featuring three generations of a family on a beach outing, suggested how new forms of recreation and vacation accompanied proliferation of the automobile after World War II.
Rockwell is best known for his sentimental, nostalgic, and humorous celebrations of what he described as “life as I would like it to be,” but toward the end of his career he also addressed complex social and political issues of the day, particularly civil rights and integration. In covers for Look he captured the challenge of racial bigotry, the youthful courage that helped desegregate Southern schools, and the trauma of blacks moving into white neighborhoods.
“The Problems We All Live With” (1964) shows Ruby Graves, a black child, being escorted by large US marshals implementing a Federal court order to integrate New Orleans schools. “Nigger” scrawled on the wall and remnants of a hurled tomato on the ground underscore the tenseness of the situation as the little girl marches steadfastly forward. In this dramatic, adroitly composed vignette, Rockwell illuminated an ugly American reality for millions to see.
In “New Kids in the Neighborhood” (1967) the artist illustrated the issue of community integration, depicting two groups of youngsters – one black, one white – eyeing each other with wary curiosity in front of a moving van. It is their first encounter after the arrival of the black children. One wonders whether the baseball gloves the kids carry will ever be used in play together. At a time when violence and incendiary language punctuated the civil rights struggle, Rockwell cast the issue in the most basic, human terms at a childhood/neighborhood level.
His unflagging optimism and idealism animated “Golden Rule” (1961), in which he sought to include, as he put it, “people of every race, creed, and color, depicting them with dignity and respect.” In “The Peace Corps (JFK’s Bold Legacy)” (1966), he conveyed the bright promise of President John F. Kennedy’s global project by placing the slain leader amidst young people who sought to implement his vision.
It is a particular treat to see this exhibition in Stockbridge, where so many of the sites utilized by Rockwell in his art are still standing. An example is “Stockbridge Mainstreet at Christmas (Home for Christmas)” (1967), measuring 26½ by 95½ inches, a delightful highlight to the show. To the far right is the venerable Red Lion Inn; “The Marriage License” was set in the old red-brick Town Offices, the third building from the right, now the Yankee Candle Co., and Rockwell’s first studio was on the second floor of the center building (with a Christmas tree in the window), now the Stockbridge Central Store.
Located in downtown Stockbridge for its first 24 years, the Rockwell Museum moved to its present, 36-acre campus overlooking the Housatonic River Valley in 1993. The handsome new museum, designed by Robert A.M. Stern, holds the world’s largest collection of Rockwell works, including over 750 paintings and drawings, and an archive of more than 100,000 photographs, letters, and other materials.
The site also includes the artist’s barn-red studio, relocated from the grounds of his house. Replete with brushes, easel, furnishings, and books, it looks much as it did in the artist’s day. An active educational program and rotating special exhibitions add to the popularity of the well-attended museum.
In painting, as he put it, “ordinary people in everyday life situations,” Rockwell persevered in the work at which he excelled, in spite of the scorn of the art-world elite. Although not painted for exhibition, his oils look grand in museum settings, suggesting how greatly he has been underestimated as an easel painter. His oil canvases have sold in recent years for well over six figures; “The Watchmaker” fetched an auction record $937,500 at Sotheby’s in 1996.
Certainly the current exhibition has given thousands of viewers a renewed understanding of why Rockwell is generally considered the most popular American artist of the Twentieth Century. Capturing the spirit and atmosphere of Main Street, USA, as well as the cheerful optimism and ambition of fellow Americans during a troubled century, his timeless images reflect the aspirations and values of Americans of a bygone era.
Rockwell’s enduring legacy may be to remind us of the qualities and heritage that have made this nation special. Not bad models to guide us in the new millennium.
Rockwell admirers will want to acquire the handsome, fully illustrated 200-page exhibition catalogue. Published by the Norman Rockwell Museum and the High Museum of Art and distributed by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., it sells for $35 in hardcover. Among those contributing chapters to this most comprehensive analysis of the artist’s oeuvre are co-curators Knutson, Hennessey, and Larson. They are joined by a varied group of experts who offer often fresh perspectives on Rockwell’s work, including art historians Wanda M. Corn, Neil Harris, Karal Ann Marling, and Robert Rosenblum; critic Dave Hickey; connoisseur Thomas Hoving; psychiatrist Robert Coles; illustration expert Steven Heller; museum directors Moffatt and Ned Rifkin; and sculptor Peter Rockwell, the artist’s son.
Linda Shearer, director of the Williams College Museum of Art, and Michael G. Kammen, art historian at Cornell University, are organizing a symposium entitled “Culture, Criticism and the Art of Norman Rockwell.” Examining the cultural significance and changing place of Rockwell’s work in the American art canon, it will be held on September 22 at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in nearby Williamstown, Mass.
The Norman Rockwell Museum is on Route 183. For information, 413-298-4100.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
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