Magazine article USA TODAY

Pictures for the American People: The Art of Norman Rockwell

Magazine article USA TODAY

Pictures for the American People: The Art of Norman Rockwell

Article excerpt

"Rockwell's paintings powerfully portray the universal truths, aspirations, and foibles of humanity"

NORMAN ROCKWELL was proud of his chosen profession as an illustrator. He was a skilled storyteller whose painterly images were made for the rapidly changing era of mass media. The people adored his work, and Rockwell cared about his public. Receiving fan mail by the bagful, he was the people's artist. At a time when many viewers stared in bemusement at Pablo Picasso's fractured shapes and at Jackson Pollock's dribbled paint, Rockwell was an artist they understood because he so clearly understood them.

Among fellow artists and critics, however, Rockwell has mostly been an object of derision. The 20th-century artistic community was never able to abide his sentimental images and reassuring messages of American nobility. Irrefutably successful by any measure of popularity, longevity, commercial success, and mass appeal, Rockwell was a flop in the eyes of the art world. "His success was his failure," wrote critic Arthur Danto in a 1986 review, describing his imagery as a "shovelful of stardust." Rockwell's strengths as an artist were out of fashion in the context of the 20th-century art scene. He was an anachronism for most of his career, and he knew it. Approached by young students during a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1949, he was asked by one, "You're Norman Rockwell, right?" Touched with pride at being recognized, he was stung by the follow-up comment, "My art professor says you stink!"

Rockwell was occasionally troubled that he was an anomaly among the leading artists of his day. Educated in the classical traditions of Western painting, he went to Europe to study the moderns and was an admirer of Picasso and Pollock. Like many great talents, he periodically experienced bouts of self-doubt and depression, often associated with such major life changes as the end of his marriages or his departure from The Saturday Evening Post, his employer of 47 years.

Rockwell sought renewed inspiration through travel, sketch classes, remarriage, and relocation to new communities. For seven decades, he was driven to paint. Propelled to the studio seven days a week--even on birthdays, Christmas, and other holidays--he simply was unable not to paint. He produced an oeuvre of nearly 4,000 images, including 800 magazine covers and ad campaigns for more than 150 companies.

His neighbors were his models, and ordinary moments were his themes. "The commonplaces of America are to me the richest subjects in art," Rockwell wrote in 1936. "Boys batting flies on vacant lots; little girls playing jacks on the front steps; old men plodding home at twilight, umbrellas in hand--all of these things arouse feeling in me. Commonplaces never become tiresome. It is we who become tired when we cease to be curious and appreciative."

Rockwell was born in 1894 in New York City at the height of Impressionism; came of age during Cubism; painted and persevered through Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism; and ended his career at The Saturday Evening Post during Pop Art and Minimalism in the 1960s. He launched his career when illustrators were at the height of fashion, considered celebrities on a par with today's sports heroes or movie stars. By the time his career reached its pinnacle, the art world had drawn a firm line between high and low art, between commercial illustration and fine art. A continental chasm existed between realism and abstraction. Rockwell had become hopelessly old-fashioned.

Author Tom Wolfe wrote--in a review of Susan Meyer's America's Great Illustrators --that, as late as 1900, "artists moved back and forth from easel painting to commercial illustration without any real sense of crossing a boundary. Many of the most important innovations of the period of Art Nouveau, such as [Aubrey] Beardsley's and [Henri] Toulouse-Lautrec's, originated in commercial illustration. …

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