Most of what can be said of Norman Rockwell as an artist we have heard: his fame and success as an illustrator, his critical dismissal by the art world for decades, his critical rehabilitation in recent years as a painter. I weighed in on the trajectory of his career after seeing an exhibition of his work at the Orlando Museum of Art in 2008. I realized two things then that I still believe: An appreciation of Rockwell's native talent is only possible after viewing his original paintings, which were not seen by the public for years, and that appreciation has its limits.
"American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell" at the Tampa Museum of Art will be a beloved exhibition for fans of traditional art but also an eye-opener for skeptics of Rockwell-as-fine-artist — as it was for me seven years ago. It's organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., and is similar to the 2008 show, with 47 years' worth of Saturday Evening Post covers, some of the paintings from which they were reproduced, his work for other publications and advertising campaigns, and historical documents such as correspondence and photographs.
The paintings are the best part of the show. Because the illustrator always reclaimed his work after it had been translated into print form, Rockwell owned hundreds of original oil paintings, and they became the foundation for a museum.
No one can debate Rockwell's gift as a visual storyteller. I can't find a clunker in the hundreds of Post illustrations from 1916 to 1963, though his creative growth is apparent as the years pass. His first was of three boys, one all dressed up and pushing a baby carriage while being taunted by two others wearing uniforms and on their way to a baseball game. From the beginning Rockwell (1894-1978) had a way of softening a scene that could have been rendered cruel, sad or frightening in other hands. In this rendering, the dandied boy's frustration is evident on his face and he seems in agreement with his teasers rather than hurt by them.
The 1921 No Swimming also features three boys, but they're in cahoots and on the run. We know why immediately: They're passing a sign that reads "No Swimming" and they're trying to dress themselves on the fly. The best element is the dog, also fleeing, with a wild look in its eyes. (Rockwell was a genius dog artist.) Anxiety in the dog is cute; in the boys, it would be concerning, which Rockwell always avoided in his Post covers.
Compare it to a much later childhood scene created for Look magazine, for which he worked after severing ties with the Post in the 1960s. The Problem We All Live With (1963-64) is political and opinionated in a way his former bosses would never have allowed. It's a portrait of Ruby Bridges, who was the first black child to attend an all-white school in the South. She wears a pristine white dress in literal and symbolic contrast to her dark skin. Her vulnerability is emphasized by the bulk of the four U.S. marshals protecting her. He painted it at the girl's eye level so their heads are outside the canvas, making them anonymous; only Ruby's identity is important. On the wall behind her is a racial epithet and the remains of a hurled tomato, evidence of the white community's fury and the real danger the little girl faced.
Rockwell was a supporter of the civil rights movement and chafed under the Post's conservative leadership. He was once ordered to paint out a black person because the policy was to show them only as servants. His departure unleashed years of pentup frustration and freed him to make more socially conscious works. Another example in the show is Murder in Mississippi (1964), which was done for an article in Look about the murder of three civil rights workers. Both the study and finished painting are in the show. The editors decided to run the study, perhaps because it was less polished and suggested an on-the-scene sketch of the tragedy.
The problem we live with in his newly expressed social conscience is that his works aren't as good as those about the good old days. We know as we look at his earlier works that we're looking at a world that was mostly fiction. But how much truth is there in a 17th century Rococo painting by Fragonard of always young and gorgeous aristocrats? We know that Rockwell was a commercial artist who painted for paid commissions. Do we think that Renaissance artists painted for free or always chose their subject matter?
The difference is that Rockwell never seems to stretch himself the way a great artist does. He avoids nuance and the complexities of relationships. The inner life holds no interest for him.
But how fabulously he painted the outer life. Consider The Discovery from 1956. A young boy faces us as a Santa costume spills from a dresser drawer. He holds the fake beard and on his face is an expression we refer to as "the light bulb moment." (No, little boy, there is no Santa Claus.) Rockwell could have stopped there in creating a successful magazine cover. Instead he adds a few mothballs skittering across the carpet. He makes the boy's pajama bottoms too long (because we always buy clothes that our kids can grow into). And he uses an Old Master technique of creating a view through an open door, extending the world of the painting and giving us more context. So immediate are people's reactions to this painting that Tom Daly, the Rockwell Museum's curator of education, says that they avoid this painting when giving tours to children. "We don't want to be the ones to talk to them about Santa," he says.
Rockwell was a gorgeous painter. He works hard to create contrasting textures in clothing and makes difficult techniques look easy. We see those in his most famous works, the Four Freedoms, inspired by a speech by President Franklin Roosevelt during some of the darkest days of World War II. They illustrate Roosevelt's rallying cry for freedom from fear and want and freedom of worship and freedom of speech. In Freedom From Want, Rockwell poses a multigenerational family around the Thanksgiving table with the grandparents at the head, proffering a big turkey. It's the way we want Thanksgiving to be, the way we think it should be (and if it isn't we're losers), though rarely is it. Rockwell is probably most responsible for giving us this myth of the perfect Thanksgiving. It's sentimental, for sure. But get past that to the tablecloth. Notice how perfectly it's painted with the folds indicating it was just taken from a closet for this special occasion.
That's the Rockwell I love.
"American Chronicles" is a thoroughly enjoyable exhibition. We know intellectually that the past Rockwell conjures for us is his version, his imagining of his life and times, and how he wanted them to be.
Contact Lennie Bennett at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.