Wonderful faces

Dear Artist, 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.

“Saturday Evening Post – The Baby Carriage”
“The Baby Carriage”
original painting, May 20, 1916
by Norman Rockwell

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. Best regards, Robert 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.   Norman Rockwell

“Gramps at the Plate” 1916


“Little Boy Writing a Letter” 1920


“If your wisdom teeth could talk,” they’d say, “Use Colgate’s.” 1924


“Checkers” 1928


“Four freedoms” 1943


“Saturday Evening Post” December 14, 1963

              Cloying and sentimental illustrator by Anonymous  

Two very good books

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.   American idealism by Debrah Barr, Portland, OR, USA  

“Four freedoms”
oil painting, 1943
by Norman Rockwell

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
From: barbstur — Apr 08, 2012

Norman Is my favorite artist. An illustrator he was but also a master of telling a story through his art. Those who think he is not an artist may try telling the same story yourself and see if you can hold a candle to him. I can be creative with my paints and pencils, but seeing the expresssive respect his subjects have keeps me trying again and again.

  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
From: Anonymous — Apr 05, 2012

I’ve read all the major Rockwell books and sources, and I’ve never read that he painted under any other name. Certainly he never said so, and he was a pretty candid guy about his methods and techniques.

  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
From: Rosemary Claus-Gray — Apr 06, 2012
From: Jackie Knott — Apr 06, 2012

It appears Rockwell will always be undervalued, mostly by critics. He is certainly one of America’s best on a level with the Wyeth dynasty. Sentimental, sure, but cloying? Hardly, and that is why he is so endearing to American culture; Rockwell DID reflect elements of American life and if the scene wasn’t exactly “truthful” his depiction of character was dead on. I submit his composition was superior to most and his technique served him well. I am weary of criticism leveled at illustrators – Leyendecker, JM Flagg, Gibson, Parrish, and yes, Rockwell were some of our best artists regardless of subject matter.

From: Anonymous artist — Apr 09, 2012

No matter what your sentiment towards illustrators, Rockwell was indeed a great painter. A visit to his museum in Stockbridge, MA will certainly convince you of that. Perhaps many of us have become jaded with the Rockwellian commercialization of nearly everything, but does that make him any less of a painter? Would we call Rembrandt just a portraitist because that was his major source of income? We have images of paintings by Monet and Van Gogh plastered on everything from umbrellas to shopping bags but that doesn’t define who they are. I believe that Rockwell’s paintings will stand up to the course of time and will be as popular two hundred years from now as they are today. They capture a piece of Americana that is nowhere else caught in such an extensive body of work.

  Puzzling faces by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA  

“Look of man”
oil painting
by Rick Rotante

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  

charcoal drawing
by Kathy Hirsh

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  

“Marty’s Boots”
acrylic painting
by Michael Epp

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. There are 2 comments for Do artists need to decline? by Michael Epp
From: Susan Holland — Apr 05, 2012
From: caroline — Apr 06, 2012

what a great letter!

  Trendy varnish 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.    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Wonderful faces

From: Daniela — Apr 03, 2012

Illustrators are so underrated and ignored as fine artists. I have collected a few books and even old calenders that contain old illustrators works. Sometimes I remember to take them out and just look through them, and, the more I draw/paint, the more I realise just how outstanding some of these works were. I wish I could go overseas and see a Norman Rockwell exhibition.

From: Patsy, Northern Ireland — Apr 03, 2012

I agree, Daniela! I have always loved Norman Rockwell’s work. I often wonder why scorn is poured onto art that is photo-realistic, and think it’s probably because those who jeer couldn’t draw like that if they practised their entire lives. One can appreciate both his type of art and, for example, abstract and impressionistic – no one of them is “correct”; just different. And we can learn from all of them.

From: Marvin Humphrey — Apr 03, 2012

Pontificating talkers/writers have historically been more highly revered as “experts” on any subject ,than actual achievers.

From: Dorenda — Apr 03, 2012

I saw the exhibition in Ohio over the winter and it was MAGNIFICENT! I always thought of Rockwell’s work as tightly rendered…until I saw them up close and personal. He was a master of creating local color with unusual combinations and I never knew how “painterly” his work truly was, or how large he sometimes painted for the Post covers. Also, his addition of graphite over the painted works was quite a surprise! Beautiful…and some rarely seen works…well worth seeing!

From: Claudia Roulier — Apr 03, 2012

I love the fact that illustrative art is finally getting some recognition as “real” art. It is a style I use. Love Norman’s work!

From: Marsha Hamby Savage — Apr 03, 2012

I love Norman Rockwell … and saw a wonderful exhibition about 14 years ago in Maine … believe it was in Portland. That cemented my “knowing” what a wonderful artist he was. I read your letter this morning, and it made me want to study his work again from beginning to end to see that progression of which you spoke! Thanks Robert!

From: Debra Rexroat — Apr 03, 2012

When “Rockwell” was at the Tacoma Art Museum it seemed to find the crowd right where they were. I don’t think anyone left there without a deep appreciation for his art and his life.

From: Susan Kellogg — Apr 03, 2012

I am glad I decided to Google you this morning when the newsletter did not arrive in my email box. Re: Rockwell…I think I retained an infantile wide-eyed view of the world longer than most as I absorbed those paintings in the Saturday Evening Post when I was young as much as I absorbed my mother’s face. Later I became “sophisticated” as the university art world’s norm decreed, but Norm always had a place in my heart and more so as I age. He was mischaracterized as a sentimentalist. There was a always a cold eye and a warm heart at work.

From: Ron W. OFJ — Apr 04, 2012

‘A closed mouth gathers no foot’ seems to make more & more sense. Thanks keep em comin’

From: Darlene Ducharme — Apr 04, 2012

I have never emailed you before.I am an amateur painter and enjoy your newsletters each week.. I just had to respond to this one. In 2000 my daughter was living in New York and we were visiting . On the weekend she said we are going to a friends home in Stockbridge , Mass. What an absolute thrill to spend the week end in Norman Rockwell’s town.l had long been a fan of his and it was just delightful. Just like the pictures.

From: Peter Fife — Apr 04, 2012

According to Jarvis Rockwell, Norman Rockwell was “an orderly man.” All of his photos–most of the 8 x 10 glossies– remain thirty years after his death. Thus his methodology can be studied. One of the most fascinating things about these photos is how they diverge in countless minor ways from the final paintings that were ostensibly derived from them.

From: Susan Holland — Apr 05, 2012

Why do we scorn the art of someone like Norman Rockwell because it’s too “down home”, while we esteem someone like Mark Twain? Do we call Art Deco “real art?” How narrow minded are we about what constitutes “real art?” As narrow as the Salons who sneered at the French Impressionist Pissarro and his rather esteemed bunch of chums whose paintings top the Sotheby auction price charts perenniallly? How about Mary Cassatt and as a matter of fact, how about that Michelangelo who illustrated the Bible, of all things, on the Sistine Ceiling? Did we eschew the controlled draftsmanship of David during the Abstract Impressionist years? Do we hate the illustrations of Hokusai but love the Piss Christ? What’s going on here…we are becoming wannabes, like the teenyboppers, who clone the currently famous… Artists are specialists! All “real” artists should be specialists. Can you recognize a Norman Rockwell anywhere, easily? Is it because you have taken good looks at his work? Why did you do that? Have you ever tried to paint a Rockwell yourself? I am taken with the good idea he came up in using printer’s colors to make his paintings… it was so that his colors would reproduce perfectly. I would say that was painting with a limited palette, and planning his presentation. In my art books bookcase, I have a great binder with a collection of Rockwell covers that I love looking at. I have a collection of prints of Hokusai as well. And Daumier. And Lucien Freud. I’m not as taken with “pump them out” artists, like our current so-called painter of light, for instance. But I think his helpers do them anyway.

From: Chris Page — Apr 05, 2012

I won’t even get into a discussion about what is art and what is not, and whether or not “illustrators” will ever be let into this old boys’ club. I will just say, Rockwell is my idol; my hero, and has made a profound influence on my life and my painting. I even made the pilgrimage to Stockbridge, stayed at the Red Lion, and swooned at the Rockwell museum…. all this other crap is, well, crap….

From: Mark Tisdall — Apr 05, 2012
From: Christine Henry — Apr 06, 2012
From: Kathleen Knight — Apr 06, 2012

As a naive college freshman in 1954, I eagerly took an intro. art class. One assignment was to assemble a scrapbook of examples of different art media, and I included a Rockwell drawing. Got a bad grade because “he’s not an artist, just an illustrator.” Many years later (about 10 years ago, I think), I read that his work is now included in art school curricula. Yea!

From: Rick Rotante — Apr 08, 2012

Art has categories– Fine, Abstract, Illustration, Fauve, Pop, Contemporary, Tonalist, Classical. But the one thing all have in common is they are Art none the less. It’s okay for Art to be separated this way. It helps us pinpoint an epoch in the history of art. But, as people and artists, we need to recognize them first as an expression of someone’s idea of the world as they saw it. I believe all great art tells a story in some way; either overtly or through some hidden means. For me a pretty picture isn’t really art. It’s creativity at best and pleasing but unobtrusive and non-threatening; but this too holds a minor place in the big picture. Rockwell becomes profound because of what he painted, not how or what methods he used. His art defined an era as did the Romantics and Art Deco and Folk Art today. We get myopic when we champion one style over another and we lose our way when we say one is greater than another. All are great for what they are and we should see it as that. I applaud you Robert for using Rockwell as your centerpiece today and because this is your site and you can choose any forum you wish to enlighten our day.

From: SHuppi — Apr 09, 2012

I’ve loved Rockwell’s work but didn’t truly appreciate it fully until I went to the museum-and to his studio. Even if it’s not your style-he is amazing!

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