Best Art Critic Review of Norman Rockwell I’ve Read

Framing Rockwell’s Vision of America

Exhibit highlights his sunny outlook, subtle talents

By Sebastian Smee   Boston Globe,  August 16, 2009


STOCKBRIDGE – To take the drive out through the Berkshires and onto the bucolic grounds of the Norman Rockwell Museum is to glide into a dream of America that may well never have existed, and yet it retains its power to seduce.

Now is an excellent time to reassess Rockwell’s place in the pantheon. At the Norman Rockwell Museum, every one of Rockwell’s 321 covers for the Saturday Evening Post is displayed in a single, below-ground room. The display, dizzying in its historical sweep, affords a wonderful opportunity to survey a substantial slice of American life in the 20th century through Rockwell’s gently ironic, hard-working eyes.

It’s complemented by “American Chronicles: the Art of Norman Rockwell,’’ a survey across several rooms of Rockwell’s original paintings and drawings that has returned to the museum after a national tour. (There’s also a new show devoted to the sculptures of his youngest son, Peter Rockwell.)

Although Norman Rockwell professed unwavering admiration for modern artists like Picasso and Pollock, Rockwell insisted he was only ever an illustrator. In this way – and quite deliberately – he ruled himself out of consideration as a serious artist.

He certainly wasn’t lying. Illustration was what he did, and at a prolific rate – for high circulation weeklies, and for companies that employed him to advertise their wares. Defining himself as a mere illustrator may have cost Rockwell little (from the age of 30, he was more famous than almost any so-called “serious’’ artist alive) and it probably helped protect him from invidious comparisons.

But it’s ludicrous to say, as was said by high-minded critics throughout much of the 20th century, that just because a modern picture is illustrative – i.e. involved in storytelling – it is somehow inferior. Now that the polemics around modern art are largely exhausted, it’s time to dispense with such fatuous distinctions and judge Rockwell plainly on his merits.

So yes, Rockwell loved narrative (as a boy, he spent long hours inventing images of characters out of Charles Dickens). But so did Rembrandt. And so, too, in our own bewildered era, do artists like John Currin – a current superstar of art who has more than a touch of Rockwell to him.

It’s a dream, but not an outright fantasy: Rockwell’s world was one of resounding good cheer and communal well-being. Yet he was punctilious about painting individuals, not types. He invested his art with just enough of reality’s grit and specificity to make his dreams palpable. And if the ideal he so winningly peddled can at times feel a little airless, it’s certainly never drab: Again and again, it’s saved by Rockwell’s utter brilliance as a picture-maker, and his wry and consistently gracious humor.

“American Chronicles,’’ which is accompanied by a catalog written by curator Linda Szekely Pero, is a splendid affair. Unlike the paintings of Andrew Wyeth, America’s other vaunted 20th-century populist, Rockwell’s look better in the flesh than they do in reproduction. Despite his technical fastidiousness, they have an airy touch that fizzes with highlights, is wonderfully alive to texture and novel geometries, and is adorned, like party balloons on a gray day, with outbreaks of bright, saturated color.

In his work as a supplier of cover illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post and Life magazine, Rockwell had an unerring ability to conjure from his imagination ordinary, universally recognizable moments that were pregnant with meaning. His pictures were elaborate machines designed for the purposes of conveying that meaning. They aimed for maximum clarity, minimum obscurity (they were mostly magazine covers, after all). But they were not without subtlety.

Look at the stiffness in the rhyming stances of the little girl and the four US marshals assigned to protect her in Rockwell’s courageously plainspoken civil rights-era painting “The Problem We All Live With.’’ The moment, we instantly grasp, is tense. Note, too, the cropping of the marshals at shoulder level. Their anonymity stands in contrast to the straight-backed black girl, whose somber face is utterly exposed. Each marshal wears a suit in a different shade of grey. They may be there to protect her, but they represent the law, and the law is not only impersonal but unreliable.

Physiognomy, as a science, may be discredited today. But Rockwell’s art stands as a reminder of the truth upon which it was founded, which artists through the ages have understood: that the face is the seat of character. He revered the idiosyncrasies of human faces and went to enormous trouble reproducing them. Look at the faces of the fleeing boys – alternately adrenalized by alarm and puffing with effort, in the marvelous early illustration “No Swimming.’’ Or at the expression of steady concentration subtly eroded by fatigue in “The Law Student.’’


In these early years, Rockwell worked from live models. But the effort of getting them to hold poses that required nuanced control of facial muscles over long stretches became too much, and in the 1930s he began to use photographs as aids.

Tellingly, he said he never got over the feeling it was cheating. (According to Pero, he told his sister-in-law that when fellow illustrator J. C. Leyendecker visited him and saw the photographs he used scattered across the studio floor, “neither one of us appeared to notice them, but it was just as though a fresh corpse I had just murdered lay there.’’)

Of course, even with the help of photographs, it’s devilishly hard imbuing faces with life and animation. Rockwell did it – and he got better and better as time went by.

“Commonplaces never become tiresome,’’ he once wrote. “It is we who become tired when we cease to be curious and appreciative.’’

Of course, it’s tempting to recoil from this kind of homely wisdom, just as we may recoil from Rockwell’s relentlessly sunny disposition, his refusal to admit genuine darkness or mystery into his world. But resentment seems pointless. Rockwell was an artist in whom curiosity and appreciation were uniquely tethered to a larger civic-mindedness, and forged by the dictates of his chosen medium – the mass-circulation weekly.

If the adjective “Rockwellian’’ has become a byword for “hopeless naivete’’ as museum director Laurie Norton Moffatt suggests in the catalog, it’s easy to see why. The cause is not necessarily cynicism, as Moffatt implies: It’s just as likely impatience.

Rockwell’s eternal optimism, when measured against all we know and suspect about the world, can sometimes look rather blinkered.

No matter, his vision of the world was very beautiful. And besides, naivete is never hopeless.

© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.


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