JULY / AUG 2011: BY KATHARINE TAYLOR
No artist I can think of more perfectly captures the spirit of the American 30’s & 40’s than Norman Rockwell. As an acute observer of detail, he painted things inspired by life around him, from pretty girls wearing the fashions of the time to small town scenes like the doctor’s office or a political meeting. He was a stickler for accuracy and included beautifully rendered details, props in his stories. In every painting he set the scene like a playwright and though the viewer may not notice every detail at first glance, each helps reveal the mood of the art and reward second and third looks with the joy of discovery.
Many of his works are so iconic and recognizable as part of the background of the era that we tend to take them for granted. For many years Rockwell’s art was sneered at by art critics as overly idealized. Admired artists of the time were expressionists like Jackson Pollock, so he seemed to be swimming against prevailing currents in the art world. While artists like Pollock lived troubled lives of excess and addiction, Rockwell settled in a small town with his family and earned a living by the often stressful and demanding job of illustrating magazine covers. Later, as his work became more popular with the public, he painted more large independent works, but he was still producing covers to the last years of his career.
He never intended to be a rebel, since even he admired abstract art. Though he was not ashamed to be known as an illustrator, he argued that it should be considered an art in its own right. He said, “No man with a conscience can just bat out illustrations. He’s got to put all of his talent, all of his feeling into them. If illustration is not considered art, that is something that we have brought upon ourselves by not considering ourselves artists. I believe that we should say, ‘I am not just an illustrator, I am an artist’.”
His working methods were famously perfectionist and precise. He trained at several well-known and respected art schools in New York and his drawing skills were outstanding. He either worked from life with his models costumed exactly as they would appear or took extensive reference photos of every model and prop. His preparatory drawings in charcoal were detailed and beautifully finished. His capacity for observation enhanced his ability to tell the stories that make his art so memorable. The way he tells a story in a single glance is unparalleled in any other artist and is the talent most people admire about him.
Take one of my favorite of his works as an example, “Girl at the Mirror.” It has a young girl with a fashion magazine open in her lap, wistfully studying herself in the mirror. It’s instantly clear from her expression, the position of her hands, and the props on the floor that she has just reached that moment of first wondering if she is beautiful. How did Rockwell know how to pose her hands just so, gently, hesitantly cupping her face? How did he know the feeling every woman can identify with and how to portray it with such subtlety and power?
Or consider “Rosie the Riveter,” an icon of WWII. It’s possible to dismiss her as pure propaganda. There were many earlier representations of mythical “Rosie” before Rockwell painted his version, but if you dismiss this work you’d miss the little details that raise it above political advertising. Rosie’s pose is an homage to Michelangelo’s painting of Isaiah on the Sistine Chapel, so Rockwell has given Rosie the status of a great heroic figure, but he added a lunch sandwich in one hand and the humor of using “Mein Kampf” as her footrest to ground her solidly in reality. You couldn’t more clearly say “everyday people can be great heroes by working faithfully at their calling,” but this result is far more powerful than words.
Rockwell was not shy about using his art to give a message. In the 60s he did works like “The Problem We All Live With” which depicts the experience of segregation from the point of view of a young black girl going to school. Her vulnerability is emphasized by the scale of the work and the cropping out of the adults’ heads. The famous “Four Freedoms” series was propaganda of a sort: they were used to sell war bonds. Although they have been panned as obvious, many people still find the themes of freedom depicted in them stirring.
It’s this kind of artistic imagination, detailed observation, and just plain great drawing and painting skill that make Norman Rockwell, as he himself said, “not just an illustrator but an artist.” Naturally, his work appeals to a nostalgic view of an idealized America with small towns and friendly people. And sure, it’s a fun look back into a vanished era, but his depth of vision saves his work from being too cutesy. No matter how old-fashioned the settings may seem, his paintings always manage to capture an emotion, an memory, that is universal and thus eternal. ■