Norman Rockwell exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum! It sounds so
crazy," says art historian Robert Rosenblum.
His statement reflects the art establishment's bewilderment that
Rockwell (1894-1978), a painter often thought of as a corny,
sentimental illustrator of magazine covers, is about to be exhibited
at a number of high-brow art institutions that tend to ally
themselves more with cutting-edge contemporary art than Rockwell's
nostalgic, idealized images of small-town America.
So why this exhibition - and why now?
"This is an extremely [economically] feasible show," says Peter
Plaegens, an art critic for Newsweek magazine. "People will come in
droves, and the museums that take Rockwell will sell a lot of
tickets, as well as a lot of T-shirts, posters, and other collateral
"There is a built-in hipness about liking Rockwell. It goes
against the orthodoxy of Modernism. You see people slicking their
hair back into pompadours; it's all very retro," Mr. Plaegens says.
The traveling exhibition, "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the
American People," will debut at Atlanta's High Museum Nov. 6 and
make its final stop at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2001.
The seven-city tour also includes Chicago, Washington, San Diego,
Phoenix, and Stockbridge, Mass. This is the first retrospective of
Rockwell since a 1972 exhibition sponsored by the Brooklyn (N.Y.)
Museum of Art. That show received reviews that ranged from lukewarm
Ironically, it was an art critic who got the ball rolling. "I
think it was three years ago, I happened to stumble into
Stockbridge, Mass., and went to the Rockwell museum," Mr. Rosenblum
says. "I was totally riveted by the paintings. He struck me as a
fabulously interesting artist, who really knew how to put a picture
Both Plaegens and Rosenblum have said that the experience of
looking at Rockwell's actual paintings, rather than at reproductions
of them, made them more sympathetic to the artist. Rosenblum then
recommended the idea of a touring retrospective to Thomas Krens,
director of the Guggenheim.
The result of his efforts is a sizable retrospective, consisting
of 70 original oil paintings. The most famous are "The Four
Freedoms" ("Freedom of Speech," "Freedom to Worship," "Freedom From
Want," "Freedom From Fear), "Triple Self-Portrait," "The Marriage
License," and "Shuffleton's Barbershop." Also included are all 322
of Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post covers. The works cover 60 years
of his career and date back to 1916.
Collectors cash in
Though art critics might have been slow to catch on, the market
for Rockwells and illustration art in general has been expanding
steadily with rising prices. Judy Goffman, an illustration art
dealer, says that auction houses are now wooing the owners of
Rockwells, creating a competition with the private dealers who
traditionally have handled the sale of these works. "Whenever a
Rockwell comes up for sale now, the owners all tell me what
Christie's and Sotheby's say they can get for it," Ms. Goffman says.
Because Rockwell made numerous preliminary drawings, there may be
different prices for oil sketches, watercolors, and pastels - all
for the same image. Rockwell's full-size paintings have exceeded
half a million dollars at some auctions.
Plaegens said that it is time for "a reevaluation, or maybe just
an evaluation, of Rockwell" by an art world that has long dismissed
Some of that reevaluation has begun in academia, says Anne
Knutson, guest curator at the High Museum. She wrote her
dissertation on illustration and World War I propaganda. …