“Commonplaces never become tiresome. It is we who become tired when we cease to be curious and appreciative.” -Norman Rockwell
Over Christmas, I went to see the North Carolina Museum of Art exhibition “American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell” with my family. I was already familiar with some of his work, mostly from having seen it in my American history textbooks in high school, and also from the April 24, 1926 Saturday Evening Post cover that hung, framed, in my playroom when I was a little girl. But I had no idea how prolific he was—4,000 illustrations in his lifetime for magazine covers (and not just the Post), advertisements, and booklets. His paintings were everywhere—in newsstands, in public buildings, in homes, and on playing cards. Perhaps the very fact that his images were mass produced led critics to dismiss them as mere kitsch. High art, after all, isn’t so easily reproducible, or so it’s said.
It’s a shame that Rockwell’s work wasn’t appreciated by art critics during his lifetime. Even today, many still do not consider him a serious artist, but instead a commercial illustrator. Of the five art history survey books I have in my personal library, only one mentions Rockwell, and even there, his contributions to art history receive less than a half page of attention out of 1152 total pages. Rockwell’s depictions of American life have been called “overly sweet,” sentimentalized, and unrealistic. But who’s to say that there’s no place for sweetness and idealism in the canon of Western art? Lots of artists strive to create ideals or dream worlds through their paintings; Rockwell was no different. “The view of life I communicate in my pictures excludes the sordid and the ugly,” Rockwell wrote in his 1960 memoir My Adventures as an Illustrator. “I paint life as I would like it to be.” Rockwell never pretended to be a chronicler of American life as it was. Instead, he chronicled, through his paintings, his vision for America, an America in which he wished there to be freedom and laughter and play and community and innocence.
In his memoir, Rockwell wrote that the dream world he created in his paintings was actually built on reality. Rockwell’s America is not so much a fantasy as it is an expurgation of all that is bad in the world, which consequently foregrounds all that is good:
“I sometimes think we paint to fulfill ourselves and our lives, to supply the things we want and don’t have. … Maybe as I grew up and found that the world wasn’t the perfectly pleasant place I had thought it to be I unconsciously decided that, even if it wasn’t an ideal world, it should be and so painted only the ideal aspects of it—pictures in which there were no drunken slatterns or self-centered mothers, in which, on the contrary, there were only Foxy Grandpas who played baseball with the kids and boys [who] fished from logs and got up circuses in the back yard.”
I love Rockwell’s gentle humor…
And his innocent depictions of romance…
I also love these more thoughtful images of children on the cusp of puberty, comparing themselves to pop cultural images of masculinity, or femininity:
But my favorite Rockwell images tend to be the ones in which children are shown interacting with adults.
At the exhibition, I learned that in the 1960s, Rockwell joined the more politically charged publication Look, at the urging of his third wife, Mary, who wanted him to use his talents to raise the public’s social awareness. The policy of the Post had been that black people could be depicted only in service-industry jobs—they couldn’t be shown gamboling about with white children or enjoying a Thanksgiving meal. Hands down, the most moving painting in the exhibition was The Problem We All Live With (Look magazine, January 1964), which depicts six-year-old Ruby Bridges, flanked by faceless U.S. Marshals, desegregating a New Orleans public school.
Rockwell addressed the race issue in other paintings as well, like New Kids in the Neighborhood (Look, 1967):
Illustrations like these demonstrate Rockwell’s shift in tone in his later years.
For some insight into Rockwell’s personal life and working methods, I highly recommend checking out the November 2009 Vanity Fair article “Norman Rockwell’s American Dream,” written by David Kamp. In the article, Kamp explains that Rockwell’s childhood was not nearly as bright and sunny as his paintings. He was born in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, so he was a product not of suburbia, but of New York City. His mother was an invalid and a probable hypochondriac, and he never had a close relationship with either of his parents, he admits in his memoir. But Rockwell does recall the truly happy times he spent vacationing with his family in the Vermont countryside each summer and says that his paintings were in a large part based on memories of those pleasurable experiences.
The article also makes note, as did the NCMA exhibition, of Rockwell’s labor-intensive working methods in setting up scenes for his pictures and then translating those scenes from film to charcoal to paint. He went through great pains to cast his models and then to coax just the right poses and facial expressions out of them. He orchestrated elaborate photo shoots, experimenting with different costumes, props, and setups. Rockwell considered his fundamental purpose as an artist to be “interpret[ing] the typical American” by telling a visual story. Purpose achieved, I’d say.
Rockwell was not a man of simple vision, Kamp says:
“While his approach was calculatedly upbeat, it was never shallow or jingoistic, and his work, taken as a whole, is a remarkably thoughtful and multifaceted engagement with the question ‘What does it mean to be an American?’ … A fresh look at Rockwell’s work in the context of our times, in which we face many of the same circumstances that he painted through—war, economic hardship, cultural and racial divides—reveals a smarter and shrewder artist than a lot of us have given him credit for being.”
Kamp also celebrates the inviting nature of Rockwell’s paintings. By using everyday people and locations, he says, Rockwell makes his ideal world seem all the more close and achievable:
“Rockwell’s ‘life as I would like it to be’ took firm shape as a plausible ideal—not a fantastical world like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia or Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom, but a place that looked just like everyday America, only nicer. Crucial to its appeal (and instructive to us now) is how accessible and wealth-free this place was. The dogs were invariably mutts, the restaurants usually diners, the kitchens familiarly cramped, and the people decidedly unmodelish in appearance: knob-nosed, jut-jawed, jug-eared, cowlicked, excessively freckled, awkward of posture.”
Kamp concludes by saying that “what these scenes show us are Americans at their best—the better versions of our usual selves that, while only ever fleetingly realized, are nonetheless real.” I like that a lot. Rockwell’s art, for me, is a very welcome change from other modern works, with their pretentious splashes and blobs and lines, which we’re expected to stand in awe of for their supposed profundity. Rockwell’s work is more straightforward, but that doesn’t make it any less riveting. As one of Rockwell’s favorable critics, Robert Rosenblum, says, “To enjoy his unique genius, all you have to do is relax.”
As I walked through the exhibition rooms, I heard visitors say things like “Those were the days…” or “I remember when…”, and I wondered whether Rockwell’s America still exists. Do the images belong only to the “simpler times” of the 1950s, before there were video games and computers and iPhones, or can we claim them for our own times? In 2008, photojournalist Kevin Rivoli published a book called In Search of Norman Rockwell’s America. He went out with his camera to try to find and document “Rockwellesque” scenes in real life, to prove that faith, patriotism, imagination, and family values are still alive. I haven’t read it yet, but from what I can tell, Rivoli has proven that Rockwell’s paintings are timeless portrayals of an America that has always existed in some respect, and always will.
I witnessed a Rockwell moment myself last week while I was walking to work: Residential setting, snow-covered lawns. It’s about 7:45 a.m. A father, all suited up and ready for work, briefcase in hand, stands in the doorway of his home. He bends down to kiss his young daughter in her pink jammies while Mom stands by, holding a baby in one hand and a bagged lunch in the other. Kiss for Mom, kiss for baby, and it’s off to the subway station. How precious, and American!
Moments like these happen in a million different ways every day, but the problem is, we haven’t developed the sort of vision that can single in on them, what with larger things like war, poverty, crime, and personal suffering standing up front and center in the frames of our minds all the time. I’m not saying that we should ignore these serious issues, but I am saying that we need to make it a point to not lose sight of life’s simple joys, and to celebrate the ordinary whenever we can.
Illustrations: 1. Triple Self-Portrait 2. Before the Shot 3. Thoughtful Shopper 4. The Accordionist 5. After the Prom 6. No Swimming 7. Girl With Black Eye 8. Be A Man 9. Girl at Mirror 10. The Runaway 11. A Meeting of Minds 12. Doctor and the Doll 13. Gramps and the Snowman 14. The Problem We All Live With 15. New Kids in the Neighborhood