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Norman Rockwell and American Idealist Art

We recently came across a critique of Norman Rockwell on an art Web site. The writer criticized Rockwell’s paintings because they don’t make you think—”Really think” he said, in bold italic type. He conceded, as does everybody, that Rockwell was a superb painter, but the works were so obvious, and so good-natured, that Rockwell probably wouldn’t be found in an art history textbooks a hundred years from now.

Well, we’re almost one-third of the way toward the centennial of Rockwell’s death and his reputation is doing quite well. In fact, there has been a recent rise in interest in this great Post cover artist. Vanity Fair recently published a long article about his work, which was inspired by the recent publication of a new book on his work. This May, the Smithsonian Institute will open a major exhibit of Rockwell paintings from the collections of film directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. The continuing interest in Rockwell suggests that he may not be quite forgotten by 2078.

Deserving a Second Look

A skinny kid lifts weights.

Champ or Be a man
Norman Rockwell
April 29, 1922

Art professors tell us that, to truly enjoy modern art, and that we need to study the painting and learn about the life and times of the artist. While Rockwell’s paintings can be enjoyed without any prior study, viewers who study one of his works often find new details and techniques to admire.

Take, for example, Imperfect Fit, his cover for the December 15, 1945 issue. We see a young man, fresh from war, trying on the boyhood clothes he left behind. Not only has he outgrown his clothing but his head is now uncomfortably close to the sloped ceiling of his attic bedroom.

With an impeccable sense of staging, Rockwell uses props that contrast the boy with the man: the serviceman’s duffle bag in front of the fishing rod and baseball bat; the picture of Mom on the dresser and the pinup on the wall. We see the pilot’s wings on the veteran’s uniform jacket alongside the abandoned model airplane and B-17 poster the boy left behind. The painting would have resonated with the post-war readers who, like the boy, were seeing how they had outgrown their pre-war world.

Painting from Life

Rockwell’s autobiography, which was published in the 1960 Post, also gives insight into his works. Among other things, the reader gets a sense that the sentiments in his work were heart-felt. For example, there is his characteristic modesty:

“When I was ten years old, a skinny kid with a long neck and narrow shoulders, I wanted to be a weight lifter. So I began a program of exercises to strengthen myself. Every morning I would do pushups, deep knee bends, jumping jacks and the like before my bedroom mirror. After a month or so, unable to detect any improvement, I gave up. Instead of becoming a weight lifter, I decided to fall back on what seemed to be my only talent—drawing…

His childhood days were very much what you would expect for a middle-class kid at the turn of the century.

“We dug holes to China in vacant lots and, kneeling down, one ear pressed to the bottom of the hole, listened intently. ‘D’ya hear anything?’ ‘Yeah, yeah, I hear something. Quiet!’ (Breathless silence) ‘Whatta ya hear?’ ‘Voices. They’re talking Chinese; I can’t understand them.’

“We boasted about our families. I was thought to be tops in culture because my family had two Caruso records. We climbed telegraph poles, played prisoners’ base, sat on the stoops of our houses in the evening watching the lamplighter climb his ladder and light the gas lamps. I guess we led the average life of city kids around the turn of the century.”

Poignant Disenchantment

“Two memories of the city overshadow all else, unfairly perhaps. One is of the night President McKinley was shot. I remember the streets were dark except for the yellow pools of light beneath the gas lamps. The newsboys were shouting, ‘Extra! Extra! Extra! McKinley assassinated! Extra! Extra!’ People were gathering under the gas lamps, reading the news and brushing off their faces the moths which swarmed about the light. There was a kind of horror in the streets. Because I did not understand the meaning of the word ‘assassinate,’ I thought McKinley had been mortally wounded in some cruel, torturing way. I was only seven at the time. The next day we went to church, where they played ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee,’ McKinley’s favorite hymn. My father and mother cried.

“The other memory is of a vacant lot in the cold, yellow light of late afternoon, and a drunken woman in filthy rags beating a man over the head with an umbrella until he fell, then standing over him, kicking and striking him again and again. We kids watched from the edge of the lot until a policeman ran up and grabbed the woman. The man got up slowly and, seeing the policeman struggling with the woman, attacked him, swaying drunkenly and swearing. I forget how it ended. But the memory of that night and of that drunken woman became my image of the city.

Two boys and a dog swim in a pond.

Hey Fellers Come On In!
Norman Rockwell
June 19, 1920

“Against this image of the city—distorted as it is, I have never been able to rid myself of it entirely—I set the country. Until I was nine or ten years old, my family spent every summer in the country at various farms which took in boarders. The grownups played croquet, or sat in high slat-backed rockers on the front porch. We kids were left to do just about anything we wanted… Those summers, as I look back on them now, more than fifty years later, have become a collection of random impressions outside of time, not connected with a specific place or event, and all together forming an image of sheer bliss. I remember throwing off my shoes and socks to wiggle my bare toes in the cool green grass on our first day in the country, then running off gingerly over gravel road and hay stubble for a swim in the river. I remember the hayrides, all the boarders singing as the horses trotted along the dark country lanes; the excitement of eating lunch with the threshing crew at long board tables; hunting bullfrogs with a scrap of red silk tied to the end of a pole; the turtles and frogs we carried back to the city in the fall, snuffling and crying on the train because summer was over.”

Perspective in Popular Art

Although Rockwell was continually plagued with a lack of confidence, he never lost sight of the difference between himself and “artists.”

“When the art critics call me ‘cornball’ and my work ‘kitsch,’ which I’m told is a derogatory term for popular art, I begin to worry. But I always pick up my brushes and go back to work. For better or for worse, I’ll never be a fine arts painter or a modern artist. I’m an illustrator, which is very different…

“Ten or fifteen years ago a Bohemian art student—beard, long hair, sandals—kept hanging around a studio I had rented in Provincetown, Massachusetts. One day he interrupted my work on a painting of Johnny Appleseed—an old man with an iron kettle on his head and a burlap sack for a coat, striding across a hilltop, flinging out handfuls of seed.

“‘Whatta ya do it that way for?’ the art student asked.

“‘What do you mean?’

“‘Whyn’t ya do it with more feeling?’ he said. ‘Like this.’ He pulled some colored chalk out of his pocket and outlined a tall rectangle on a big piece of paper. ‘Now,’ he said, filling in with light-brown chalk a shape like a hawk’s beak, ‘that’s old Johnny’s body. It was browned by the wind and sun. OK?’

“I nodded, startled.

“‘OK,’ he said, and above the hawk’s beak, which projected from the lower-right corner, he divided the rectangle into a red area and a white area, each roughly triangular. ‘He was kind of a religious fanatic,’ he said, ‘right?’ I nodded dumbly. ‘So the white’s his spirit,’ he said, ‘and the red’s the physical part of him and they’re contending, the physical and the spiritual.’ He rubbed blue chalk over the area below the hawk’s beak— ‘That’s nature.’—made the base of the rectangle dark brown—’That’s earth.’— and drew a hand casting a seed, the arm coming out of the hawk’s beak.

“‘But,’ I said when he’d finished, ‘nobody knows it’s Johnny Appleseed. Only you know it’s Johnny Appleseed. Nobody else can tell who it is.’

“‘So? What difference does it make about anybody else? I know it’s old Johnny. I’m painting it for myself. Who cares about the unwashed masses?’

“‘Besides,’ I said, ‘your picture won’t fit into the book it’s supposed to appear in. The proportions are wrong. You’ve got it too tall.’

“‘So make the book tall,’ he said.

“All of which demonstrates, I think, that a modern artist or fine-arts painter doesn’t go at a picture the same way an illustrator does. I believe strongly that a painting should communicate something to large numbers of people. So, according to some critics, my work is old-fashioned, trite, banal. This criticism worries me now and then, especially when a picture I’m trying to finish is going badly, but I’ve learned that I can’t change. I’m not a modern artist and never will be. I don’t see things the way modernists do, even though I enjoy studying their work. I’ve been an illustrator since I was sixteen years old. I’m not particularly satisfied with my work—at least I’m always trying to improve it—but I believe in it.”

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  • Ima Ryma

    Norman Rockwell could see within
    All the human complexity,
    Then show to us over again
    Simplies of life for us to see.
    A moment with someone we know,
    To share but not intrude upon,
    To feel a sense that somehow so
    All lives do touch and then move on.
    Thank goodness, Mr. Rockwell chose
    Not to follow the artsy crowd.
    He kept with common folk. It shows
    In all his painting us all proud.

    Norman Rockwell does illustrate
    That simply life does captivate.

  • Frank James Davis

    Correction to previous post: “…who also believe in Rockwell’s work.”

  • Frank James Davis

    Perhaps the best of Jeff Nillson’s Post articles.
    Like the artist, himself, there are many of us out here who also believe Rockwell’s work.

  • Dick Burkholder, PA

    Rockwell’s “modern artist” didn’t understand him at all. Rockwell surely painted with “feeling”, and compositionally, his paintings stand up with the best works of any era. The moderns didn’t identify with Rockwell’s consistently sunny disposition, the sympathy and humor he brought to ALL situations, whether people were suffering in them or not. He wasn’t suggesting that we should ignore suffering–that Willie Gillis, for example, his prototypical WWII GI, forget about the buddies he lost overseas; rather, he reminds us that suffering along with the sufferers isn’t the most effective way of dealing with suffering. One should bring knowledge, energy, and love to the relief of suffering, and Rockwell, consistently and for sixty years, relieved suffering by recalling those aspects of life from which Americans dependably drew emotional sustenance, week after week and no matter what history was throwing at them, such as the freedom of throwing one’s feet back every Saturday and reading “The Saturday Evening Post”.