Last Friday, I saw the Norman Rockwell exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Having seen it twice before in other cities, this time I concentrated on the stylistic changes throughout the artist’s lifetime.
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) was the best known illustrator of what is often called America’s Golden Age. The butt of jokes by many critics, his popularity continues to rise. Unlike a great deal of art in public galleries these days, Rockwell’s work is still connecting. The gallery was jammed with a cross-section of age and ethnicity. Apart from popularity, Rockwell may be one of the more interesting and valuable studies for artists.
From his first Saturday Evening Post cover (May 1, 1916 — a rich kid pushing his baby sister in a buggy while bully-boys jeer) when he was 23 years old, to his last (Dec 14, 1963 — a portrait of the recently assassinated JFK), Rockwell painted 332 Post covers. Following these in chronological order is an education in the growth of capability, the progress of style, and the transformation of the artist.
In the earliest covers we see the eagerness of a young, growing mind — often wooden gestures and overworked, theoretical faces. By his twenties and into his thirties we begin to see the well-defined personalities of his subjects. We also gain a new understanding of the power of symmetry, silhouette, vignette and devices like legs and arms as vehicles of expression. Sophisticated colour and fine, painterly surfaces begin to appear. Strokes become caresses of painterly love. Finally, in later life, we see Rockwell tightening up, become more photo-dependent, less stylish, less sensitive to colour and less confident of his craft.
More than anything, we see an artist taking a lifetime to find out what he does well (faces in profile, expression of human nature and character, for example), and what he doesn’t do so well (wide-angle scenes, crowds and overly complex busyness). Some of the middle-period magazine illustrations such as Checkers, (1928) and a Colgate toothpaste ad (1924) rival the masters in characterization and gesture.
PS: “I paint life as I would like it to be.” (Norman Rockwell)
Esoterica: Things were not always easy for Rockwell. In his third illustration for the Post, Grandpa at the Plate, the work was returned to the artist twice before he finally got it right. We begin to understand the symbiosis between art director and illustrator, just as artists have catered to patrons throughout history. Catering, by expanding demands on an artist, can be key to greater craft and technique. This sort of fine tuning set Rockwell up to paint the FDR-inspired Four Freedoms (speech, worship, want and fear) of 1943, prompting the largest wartime bond drive in American history. In all their integrity and passion, these paintings deserve to be seen by each new generation. Looking at the people looking at the Rockwells, I was having Rockwellian moments — our world sure has lots of wonderful faces.
Cloying and sentimental illustrator
Why would you feature such a commercial illustrator, Robert. Shame. There’s great art out there that you can talk about, surely.
(RG note) Thanks, Anonymous, and don’t call me Shirley. To be fair, several others wrote with similar sentiments. In 1999, The New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl said of Rockwell in ArtNews: “Rockwell is terrific.
It’s become too tedious to pretend he isn’t.” Rockwell’s work has now been exhibited at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. And, not that this will count for much with many, Rockwell’s Breaking Home Ties sold for $15.4 million at Sothebys in 2006. For those who might be interested in studying the Rockwell genre, two very good books are currently available: Telling Stories, Norman Rockwell from the collections of George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg by Virginia M. Mecklenburg uses work from two remarkable collections to describe the rise of this American icon. Norman Rockwell, Behind the Camera by Ron Schick traces Rockwell’s use of photography as an aid to his painting. Rockwell used three professional photographers during his lifetime. He insisted he never looked through the viewfinder — that was the photographer’s job. “Directing the actors was enough to do,” he said. The book is loaded with the original photos that informed many of his famous pieces.
by Debrah Barr, Portland, OR, USA
Rockwell is a favorite of mine. The Four Freedoms illustration sure got me thinking… as so many of us here in the US, and all over our planet, are struggling with the “Freedom from Want” and “Freedom from Fear” Freedoms. I sure appreciate that “Golden Age” in which I came of age. So different for my grandchildren — we do not dare allow them to walk to the corner store for candy at ages 9 and 10… something I and my siblings did several times a week. Not to mention what a turkey dinner costs these days!! Thank you for sharing these wonderful and thought-provoking pieces of American idealism… hope it comes back some day. I sure look forward to your letters in my mailbox each week.
There is 1 comment for American idealism by Debrah Barr
Did Rockwell have another name?
by Peter Daniels, White Rock, BC, Canada
When I was in Winona, Wisconsin last year, they had a Rockwell exhibit. Apparently he had an A.K.A. The Fine Art Galleries accepted his “other” works under his “other” name. I was told what it was, but can’t remember.
(RG note) Thanks, Peter. Rockwell always had a shaky feeling that he wasn’t a “real artist.” For a short while in the thirties he appeared to grow bored with illustration and went to Europe to investigate other forms of art, and test himself against some modernists. I’m not aware that he changed his name on any works or released work secretly during this period, but, as usual, I could be wrong. On returning to the States in 1938 Rockwell received a commission to illustrate a publication of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, a task that rejuvenated his interest in the vitality and usefulness of illustration.
There is 1 comment for Did Rockwell have another name? by Peter Daniels
One of the greatest?
by Edna Hildebrandt, Toronto, ON, Canada
My first exposures to Norman Rockwell were from the advertisements of Coca-Cola and other products in the Philippines when I was growing up in the 1940s and ’50s. They were very exuberant and colorful and the faces very cheerful and inviting. I was in Chicago when the late President Jack Kennedy was assassinated and Rockwell’s portrait came out. It portrays a strong young national leader and it moved a nation robbed of a great leader and what he could have accomplished. Then, in 1998, we were travelling through the US and went to visit his home and museum in Vermont where most of his works are exhibited. I identified with the subjects and in the activities they were engaged in. I always wished I could paint like him. I think he is one of the greatest artists of all time.
There are 3 comments for One of the greatest? by Edna Hildebrandt
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
Oddly, painting faces well isn’t as popular a subject in fine art as it is in illustration. There is a misunderstanding that buyers don’t want a painting of someone not known to them unless, of course, they had some amount of fame or popularity, i.e. a popular musician or actor/actress. These kinds of pictures would fall more into the category of Illustration and not Fine Art. Though I agree faces tell us more about life than any landscape or still life, viewers are non-plussed when confronted with a face.
What is absent today is the aspect of the “art director.” In years past this position went to the “art dealer” — a person of means who took an artist under his/her wing and helped guide him/her to create better works and achieve notoriety and sales. Today, through necessity, artists have become more entrepreneurial and have to rely on themselves.
Personal connection with Rockwell
by Kathy Hirsh, Beijing, China
I’ve had my own personal brush with Norman Rockwell. My father, a long-departed amateur photographer, took a photo of me having my portrait drawn at a small art fair in probably 1964. In the background are paintings and “art critics” in various postures. My father then sent the photo to Norman Rockwell for his amusement. He, surprisingly, received back a very nice personal note which then hung on my father’s darkroom wall for the rest of his life. Even as a child I was thrilled to have a note from Norman Rockwell and impressed at Rockwell’s kindness in responding. I still have the note. And for me one of the best parts is that I now do portraits — wonderful-faces full-circle.
(RG note) Thanks, Kathy. I met him once. You can read about my encounter here.
Do artists need to decline?
by Michael Epp, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I am envious that you got to see all those Rockwells at once; I just saw my first 2 Rockwells at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC — along with a lot of other fantastic stuff. I’m intrigued by what you see as Rockwell’s decline as he ages; do you think artists must inevitably suffer a waning of their powers as they grow older? I would like to think that, unlike athletes, for example, we can just keep getting better and better.
(RG note) Thanks, Michael. Other human faculties deteriorate with aging, so it is natural to think that artistic capability does, too. Further, evidence exists of the decline in quality in the work of some older artists. Like the other malfunctions and weakening that come with age, “hardening of the creative arteries” and “artistic senility” can be largely arrested by exercise and a close understanding of self. The harbingers of these conditions, and the conditions themselves would make a good Twice-Weekly letter.
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by Heather Hogan, Cape Town, South Africa
I enjoy your letters so much and have since passed them onto local friends in South Africa and they have been well received. I was always under the impression that the French impressionists (some –as van Gogh) couldn’t afford to varnish and so didn’t. I may be wrong but wasn’t varnishing a sort of ‘trendy’ (sorry) thing to do. Was there not periods when they weren’t (and were)?
(RG note) Thanks, Heather. You are right, varnishing popularity comes and goes, often to the detriment of the art. Paintings are harder to keep clean when they are not varnished. Think of varnish as a sort of shrinkwrap that can easily be peeled off when you want to get at the original surface. Particularly with acrylics, varnishing protects colours from ultraviolet light damage and also facilitates the removal of dust, fly-specks and smoke. Varnish does not have to be shiny.
Enjoy the past comments below for Wonderful faces…
Wet Night Streets #2
oil painting, 30 x 48 inches
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