Retrospectives give us the sense that we know all there is to know about an artist. Almost always chronological, usually with personal papers, historical photographs and documents interleaved with the art, a retrospective is designed to give us a career overview in the context of a life.
After seeing "American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell" at the Orlando Museum of Art, I think: Norman, we hardly knew you. And maybe still don't.
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) was most famous for his Saturday Evening Post covers, and copies of all 323, done during a 47-year span, are lined up at the end of the show, covering four gallery walls. We're impressed before we reach that grand finale.
Preceding the magazine covers are 41 paintings he created for translation into various print media. They're mostly work for the Post and other magazines but include his advertising work for clients such as Kellogg, Colgate and Hallmark. Their purpose is to make the case that he was a fine artist as well as a brilliant illustrator. This rehabilitation effort has been on-again, off-again for about 50 years but is gaining greater credence in the last decade now that representational art again has a place at the grownups' table.
Norman Rockwell had an enormous natural gift and educated himself well to use it. He did not make art for its own sake; almost everything he painted was a commercial commission.
Art-for-hire may have an ambiguous place in recent art history but it's nothing new. In the late 15th century, Durer turned to printmaking for multiple edition books and made his fortune and reputation there when his paintings didn't sell. (Granted, "multiples" back then were really small numbers.) All those royal portraits down through the centuries weren't done by Velazquez, Goya, Vigee-LeBrun, etc., simply for the love of painting. The Sistine Chapel frescoes weren't donated by Michelangelo.
Still, Rockwell's art never makes the great leap that put those artists on a different plane. He made a conscious choice to turn away from the highest aspiration, to be very good at what he knew he could do.
And what's wrong with being only very good?
The astonishing output of the man. The technical proficiency. The charm. They're abundantly on view.
A young talent
He was a precocious talent, leaving high school his sophomore year to study art in New York. At 19, he became art director for Boys' Life, the national scouting magazine, with the responsibility to create a monthly cover and work with other illustrators for inside pages. Paintings from this period are in monochromes because magazines weren't yet full color. He created his first Post cover at 22. The earliest works won't knock your socks off but they are early indicators of Rockwell's lifelong empathy for the values and spirit he considered uniquely American.
Attention to detail
He marshaled the full force of that empathy in paintings illustrating four basic freedoms set out by President Franklin Roosevelt in a famous speech during World War II. When they debuted in the Post in 1943, during some of the darkest days of the war, the four works were a huge success. The Post and the Treasury Department sent them on a national tour promoting war bonds. The exhibition raised $133-million and the art was reproduced by the thousands as posters, which are in this show.
Sure, they're sentimental. In Freedom from Want, Grandma and Grandpa stand at the head of a table, ready to carve a Thanksgiving turkey, while several generations of family members smile and visit. In Freedom from Fear, a mother and father check on their two sleeping children.
Look at the details: at the family table are the ubiquitous celery dish and jellied cranberry sauce. The spotless white tablecloth, taken from a closet for the occasion, has the carefully ironed folds to prove it. The father in the bedtime scene holds a newspaper as he gazes down at his kids, a mixture of concern and tenderness evident in his posture and facial expression. The partially legible headline on the paper screams of bombings, death and terror. The works dramatize everything we had to lose and why we would not let that loss happen.
Reality, with a twist
Rockwell specialized in collective innocence. He developed a vision that didn't reflect our reality so much as what we wanted it to be. Throughout the Depression of the 1930s and the 1940s war years, people needed that vision of a united community where goodness was inherent and flaws were gently endearing. During the post-war Eisenhower period of the 1950s, it implied that our new affluence and an expanding economy were rewards for fidelity to those small-town values.
He painted everything with an eye for reproduction, from the rich applications of paint and sometimes not-so-subtle blending of color to the carefully cropped images that would fit within the page boundaries. He was a stickler for details. Every pose, every expression rings true to the specific slice of life Rockwell addressed. In a 1921 cover, three partially clothed boys are in a furious race, along with a panting puppy. We don't have to ponder why; a rustic "No Swimming" sign is a prominent part of the work.
Study the individual components and you'll see why Rockwell was always on the money: the determined set of the mouth of one boy who has to try harder because he's pudgy, the mirth and mischief in another's face (he's probably the ringleader), the third boy (whose face is just beyond the canvas), running while trying to keep his half-on pants up.
The dog is the real genius stroke. Its face mirrors true anxiety, even fear. It's cute in the animal. If even a hint of fear had been painted into the boys' faces, the composition would have had a slightly sinister aspect. As it is, No Swimming is a childhood romp.
Everything was illusion, of course, and ignored the poverty, racism and inhumanity of rampant urbanization. People most affected by those forces have every reason to take offense at Rockwell's sunny gloss in, for example, Boy in a Dining Car. The Dec. 7, 1946, Post cover shows a white boy, probably on his first solo train trip, holding his tab and carefully picking out a tip from his wallet while the black waiter smiles indulgently.
But Rockwell was aware of current events. He had to hide his liberal heart at the behest of his Post bosses who wanted nothing controversial and once ordered him to paint out a black person in a group scene because the policy was to show them only in the service industry.
When he finally severed ties with the Post in the early 1960s, Rockwell unleashed his social conscience in commissions for other magazines, especially Look.
The Problem We All Live With, his first Look illustration, shows a black girl, dressed immaculately in white, among four white men in suits. She's going to school — she carries a ruler and notebooks — and they are the U.S. marshals charged with protecting her. A racial epithet is scrawled on the wall behind the group along with splatters of a recently hurled tomato. The child's vulnerability is emphasized by the bulk of the men, walking in determined lockstep.
Rockwell painted it at the girl's eye level so the men's heads are not part of the picture plane. Her right hand mimics their clenched fists as if she, too, is following orders. It's wonderfully painted.
I said earlier that Rockwell specialized in collective innocence. Later in life, he seemed more interested in collective guilt. He wasn't as good at it. Not in Problem, not in Murder in Mississippi, a 1965 illustration for Look about the June 21, 1964, murder of three civil rights workers. It's too calculated, the poses of the victims too studied. His editors must have thought so too and didn't use it. They chose a preliminary study Rockwell had made in which the figures are indistinct and roughly painted.
This exhibition gives us both and an additional, unpublished treasure. Rockwell had first designed the illustration to include the posse of murderers, and its composition is an homage to Goya's The Third of May 1808. No one knows why he eliminated the Klansmen in the finished painting or why editors cropped them from the study so readers saw only their menacing shadows. Here, we can see all three versions as well as a window into the arduous process of the artist from initial idea to final realization of it.
Accepted as art
Rockwell was a storyteller. Like good fiction writers, he asked those who "read" his work to practice what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called "a willing suspension of disbelief," to accept fully realized fantasy as truth. His own life had its share of grief. Whose doesn't? His lowest period was probably the later 1950s when his second wife, to whom he'd been married for 28 years, sank into depression, was institutionalized and died in 1959. He painted some of his most memorable, poignant and funny paintings during that time: Girl at Mirror, Art Critic, The Discovery and The Runaway are examples.
In the publishing and advertising industries, original art is returned to the artist after it has been reproduced for print, so Rockwell had a trove of his own paintings. He never actively tried to sell them. Often, he gave them to friends. (One is inscribed to Walt Disney, a gift that his daughter returned when Disney died.)
Museums didn't want them. His eponymous museum in Stockbridge, Mass., the source of this show, was an accident. He lived in Stockbridge and a historic house there was in jeopardy of demolition. To help save it, Rockwell agreed to exhibit his collection there. It was such a hit, the show became a permanent installation, was moved to much larger quarters and today is one of the biggest tourist draws in the Berkshires.
In 1972 a 60-year retrospective went on the road with stops at several prestigious museums such as the Joslyn in Omaha and the Corcoran in Washington, D.C. It wasn't until a touring exhibition in 2000 with stints at the High in Atlanta and the Guggenheim in New York that critics started paying serious attention. Reviews were mixed but generally positive.
I keep returning to those marvelous earlier paintings. I lose myself in the way he painted shoes and surfaces, unforgettable faces. I marvel that he lavished such care on them while believing they would never be respected as standalone art. He knew they were loved. He never seems to have fully accepted his choice or ours.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or [email protected]