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American Eye: The Life & Work of Norman Rockwell – A Visual Documentary

Originally published in December 2010 in ILLUSTRATION Winter 2010 Issue 26

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) was America’s best-loved and most prolific twentieth century illustrator. His career spanned nearly seventy years and has left us with a legacy of over 4,000 original works. Even as a young man he had a unique gift for observing and capturing the visual drama, humour and homespun lives of ordinary Americans. At the tender age of 16 he had his first commission to illustrate Christmas cards and by 1912 even more commissions came his way.

By Abby Cronin

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) was America’s best-loved and most prolific twentieth century illustrator. His career spanned nearly seventy years and has left us with a legacy of over 4,000 original works. He was born in New York City and grew up in suburban Westchester Country. Drawing was an early passion and led him to study art at the Chase Art School and the Art Students League in New York before he set up his first studio in New Rochelle, New York in 1915. Even as a young man he had a unique gift for observing and capturing the visual drama, humour and homespun lives of ordinary Americans. At the tender age of 16 he had his first commission to illustrate Christmas cards and by 1912 even more commissions came his way. He did them for children’s books and in 1913 became art editor for Boys’ Life, published by the Boy Scouts of America. But Rockwell knew that the cover of The Saturday Evening Post was the greatest window in America for an illustrator: “If you did a cover for the Post you had arrived.” The Post was the most beloved magazine in America during the 1920’s and 30’s and its circulation peaked at 6 million in 1960. It was pushed through letterboxes or tossed on the front porches of millions of households across the country every week. Rockwell’s big break came in 1916 when G H Lorimer, the Post’s editor, commissioned him, a mere 22 year old, to paint a cover. ‘Boy With Baby Carriage’ (pictured), a comic narrative, published on May 16, 1916. Thus began Rockwell’s forty-seven year association with the Post and his recognition as a talented artist.

Rockwell’s magazine covers told stories about the everyday lives of Americans observed in a wide array of settings. His subject matter was familiar and ranged from mundane conversations at breakfast tables to a bridge game and barbershop quartets. He explored themes such as small embarrassments, discomforts, humiliations, youth and ageing, growing up and much-loved domestic pets. Symbols of American culture such as old-fashioned patriotism, the Boy Scouts, portraits of U.S. Presidents, holidays, political statements like Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms and the civil rights movement were also featured. In addition to Rockwell’s 322 Saturday Evening Post covers, he completed illustrations for more than 40 books, several covers for Look and other magazines, Boy Scout calendars, advertisements, postage stamps, murals and greeting cards. And that’s not counting what went up in flames when a fire destroyed numerous works in his Arlington, Vermont studio in 1943.

Despite his popularity with the wider public, Rockwell’s work was not taken seriously by the art establishment during his lifetime. Were his illustrations too nostalgic, too affectionate, and perhaps too patriotic for the critics? Although his storytelling moved millions who understood and identified with the subject matter, his style of portraying stories through narrative and figurative illustration was felt by critics to be simplistic and innocent. Did such a ‘Rockwellian’ small-town world really exist? Was he merely portraying the ‘American Dream’ – as a naïve world? At the time, intellectuals and art historians thought his work overly sentimental and kitsch. Even his artistic techniques and methods were questionable. Was it legitimate to use photography to pose people and record events, which Rockwell routinely did, before transferring them to canvas? But Rockwell did not shy away from explaining that he was “The kid with the camera eye”.

From the 1930s he engaged photographers to record carefully conceived scenes that he imagined in his mind’s eye. A recent publication, Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera, by Ron Schick, 2009, explores Rockwell’s photographic techniques. And in his book, How I Make a Picture, 1949, Rockwell referred to his works as ‘pictures’. David Kamp, writing in Vanity Fair (11.2009) explains the process Rockwell used.

First came the brainstorming and a rough pencil sketch, then casting of the models and the hiring of costumes and props…coaxing the right poses out of the models…..the composition of a fully detailed charcoal sketch…then a painted color sketch….then, and only then, the final painting.

Today the pendulum has swung back in favour of Norman Rockwell’s art and illustrations. During the past twenty years his work has been studied closely and reassessed. Now he is regarded as an accomplished painter-illustrator who spent his whole life sketching, drawing, and observing the daily lives and habits of people he knew. His themes highlighted and punctuated mainstream cultural and social mores as they changed throughout 20th century America. He understood and was heavily influenced by the Old Masters. His command of composition, design, perspective and use of light demonstrate a sophisticated grasp of artistic skills. Finally appreciated, Rockwell has earned a place in the history of Western art and ‘Rockwellian’ is no longer a term of abuse. As pictures they may be familiar – tapping into our personal memories and experiences, but they also serve as reminders of Rockwell’s ability to observe and record views of tolerance in fraught social situations. His apolitical stance gradually addressed and recorded changing American values. New Deal reforms, World War II, the rise of national identity, civil-rights movement and United Nations became core themes. In post-war America, Rockwell brought to life informative and penetrating views of acute political problems endemic in American society, such as The Problem We All Live With, 1964 (pictured). This remarkable image served as a warning sign-post. He is telling us we must not allow such treatment of our fellow citizens.

Our visual journey through Rockwell’s work begins with his first Saturday Evening Post cover. Little kids fascinated him and they were often the main subjects in his illustrations. In Boy With Baby Carriage, 1916, we find a humorous narrative of an unhappy babysitter in his Sunday best pushing a sibling in a carriage when he encounters two boys heading off to play baseball who mock him. A year later he painted Cousin Reginald Plays Pirates, his fourth cover for The Country Gentleman magazine. The series focused on a city boy being bested by his contemporaries from the country. Again children are seen in embarrassing situations. A Life magazine cover entitled The Runaway-Runaway Boy and Clown in 1922 shows a barefoot urchin being consoled by a clown. The unhappy boy’s kerchief holds his belongings and lies on the ground as the clown wipes tears from his face. His Young Valedictorian, 1928, highlights a young girl standing at the front of the school stage accepting her graduation certificate. Proud parents –or perhaps her teachers- watch with delight. She’s all dressed up and thrilled with her achievement. Here the use of light accentuates her poised demeanour. With a globe sitting next to her, it is as though she has the world at her feet.

Through the 1910s and Twenties, Rockwell’s Christmas images were sprinkled with Santas dealing with children’s requests. No Christmas Problem Now – Santa With a Parker Pen (pictured) was associated more closely with the commercialisation of Christmas than with religious rituals. Saturday Evening Post covers showed carol singers and shoppers, signalling that it was time to go out to buy stocking fillers. In the Thirties his work became less sentimental. Among his subjects were sports, travel, movie stars, and barbershop quartets. And in 1935 he received an important commission to paint colour illustrations for a deluxe edition of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. In the 1940s Rockwell focused on war as a central theme. In the years 1940-45 his soldiers and sailors as civilians in uniforms appeared on Post covers and posters for selling war bonds. Emotion flooded these paintings which depicted soldiers’ lives, families desperate to follow the news, letters home, and men returning coming home after the war. His famous image of Rosie The Riveter, 1943, (pictured) in a pose after Michelangelo’s Prophet Isaiah, is iconic.

Lighter subject matter appeared toward the end of the Forties. Seen here is April Fools-Girl With Shopkeeper, 1948, in which a young girl and an old man seem to be discussing dolls in a junk store – or it is an antique shop? The room is full of clutter – full of objects confusing America’s historic symbols. A framed portrait of Lincoln shows him in a Confederate uniform. The cat has a dog’s head; a squirrel rests on the man shoulders of the man who wears spurs on his shoes; the stove has ‘April Fool’ 1948 inscribed on it. Keep looking at this image; it’s stuffed and overflowing. Peter Rockwell, Norman’s son, described the contents of this picture as all wrong, almost a comic book illustration. Rockwell also played gently with partisan politics. In 1948 he captured the uncertainty about the outcome of the Presidential election. Would Dewey or Truman win? He shows us partisanship in the context of marital political disagreements. The amusing Breakfast Table – Political Argument, 1948, (pictured) is a humorous view of political differences between couples. Using the photograph as his primary source, he then added domestic chaos with a neglected baby crying, a cat, dog, teddy bear plus all the kitchen furnishings added in stages and worked on to produce the final version (pictured). Ron Schick explains,

Domestic political discord is one of the many themes Rockwell reprised over the years. He had interpreted it twice before, in 1920 and again in 1944. [Here] Over copies of the New York Herald Tribune and the Brattleboro Reformer, the couple argue about their preferences in the 1948 presidential election; he’s filibustering for Dewey while she supports Truman.

When we encounter a pictorial autobiography of Rockwell in his Triple Self-Portrait, 1960 (pictured) we are actually seeing three self-portraits. Rockwell is working with multiple images, each with a different attitude. His image on the easel shows an outgoing, friendly and confident face; the figure on the stool is somewhat awkward and uncertain, while the serious face in the mirror has his eyes obscured by light on his glasses. Four Old Master self-portraits by Rembrandt, van Gogh, Dürer and Picasso are attached to the top right corner of his canvas and sketches of Rockwell’s face are tacked on the top left. A caricature of the American eagle is perched on the mirror, a Paris fireman’s helmet sits at the top of the canvas and smoke is billowing from the trash can. Rockwell is playing a game, in effect asking the viewer to construct his self-portrait from the images. Read carefully, this is truly an autobiographical self-portrait.

Rockwell’s current status has soared to new heights – he is back in vogue. New Yorker art critic, Peter Schjeldhal, sees Norman Rockwell as “… a visual storyteller of genius…a story-maker, a bard. He didn’t illustrate Middle America. He invented Middle America.” (The New Yorker, 22.11.1999) I agree, and in my view, Norman Rockwell was a New England scribe with brushes. He recorded a nearly-vanished idealised America. His illustrations and art are no longer viewed as having portrayed American culture in a populist manner. Instead, they convey an intrinsic optimism. Fortunately for us, Rockwell himself established a trust in 1973, placing his works in the custody of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where he lived with his family from 1953 until his death. The museum is open to the public and attracts many visitors. More recently major retrospective exhibitions of his work have travelled across the United States including one at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 2001. And major Hollywood filmmakers, Stephen Speilberg and George Lucas have loaned their personal collections of Rockwell’s art to the Smithsonian American Art Museum where the exhibition, ‘Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’, runs through January 2nd 2011. Of even more significance is the museum dedicated to the work of American illustrators, the National Museum of American Illustration (NMAI) which opened in Newport, Rhode Island in July 2000. It is the creation of Judy Goffman Cutler and her husband, Laurence Cutler, life-long art collectors. The museum’s rich archive of major illustrators includes an important collection of Rockwell’s work. The Cutlers are bringing a selection of Norman Rockwell’s art, including 323 vintage Saturday Evening Post covers together with illustrations for advertisements, magazines and books, across the Atlantic for the first time. Visitors to the Dulwich Picture Gallery will be able to enjoy the exhibition of Norman Rockwell’s America, when it is open to the public on 15th December through to 27th March 2011.