Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Democracy's Artist

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Democracy's Artist

Article excerpt

"America's Vermeer" by Dave Hickey, in Vanity Fair (Nov. 1999), 4 Times Sq., New York, N.Y. 10036.

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) is often dismissed as an unimportant portrayer of an unreal small-town America, a mere illustrator whose sentimental cornball paintings are of no lasting worth. Hickey, a professor of art history, criticism, and theory at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, strongly disagrees. Rockwell, he avers, was "the last great poet of American childhood, the Jan Vermeer of this nation's domestic history."

Take, for instance, Rockwell's After the Prom, an oil painting that was reproduced as a Saturday Evening Post cover in 1957. In it, a boy in a white dinner jacket perches on a stool at a drugstore soda fountain and looks on proudly as his date on the next stool, a blonde girl in a white formal dress, lets the soda jerk smell the fragrance of her gardenia corsage, while another customer, apparently a workingman and war veteran, glances over and smiles.

After the Prom, says Hickey, is "a full-fledged, intricately constructed, deeply knowledgeable work that recruits the total resources of European narrative picture-making to tell the tiny tale of agape [Rockwell] has chosen to portray." The painting's true subject, Hickey says, is not "the innocent relationship between the two young people"--that is more the occasion--but rather "the generosity of the characters' responses, and of our own." The artist's "prescient visual argument" was that, despite 1950s concerns about juvenile delinquents, "'the kids are all right.'"

The picture proposes "a tolerance for and faith in the young as the ground-level condition of democracy," Hickey writes. "And, strangely enough, this is probably the single aspect of Rockwell's work that distinguishes him as a peculiarly American artist. In all other aspects, Rockwell was a profoundly European painter of the bourgeois social world in an American tradition that has almost no social painters. …

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