The Dayton Art Institute is showing American Chronicle: The Art of Norman Rockwell through February 5. It's a great big show with 42 original works and all 323 covers Rockwell created over 47 years for The Saturday Evening Post. I've always thought Rockwell a low-brow artist of treacly subjects, though a witty storyteller with a great aptitude for visual characterization. A man of ideas whose work transforms me? No.
Freedom from Want, Norman Rockwell, 1943
War bond poster.
Story illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, March 6, 1943
©1943 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN
Still, I'm the first person to advocate for contemporary artists whose work friends dismiss because they "just don't get it." "You've got to ask some questions," I'll say. "Try to figure out what why she's made the decisions she has to create this image." At the threshold of this definitive show in Dayton, it was clearly time to do what I say. American Chronicle puts Rockwell in a context that the single reproductions through which most of us know him cannot. I left the Institute knowing that I've completely misconstrued what he was trying to do. I've ascribed the images of the enormous Thanksgiving turkey presented to the reverent wartime family and the mythic summertime frolics of youth to the boring technician, Norman Rockwell. After having seen this large show in Dayton, I begin to doubt, though, that Norman Rockwell was more than a label for a subtle and elusive artist whose ideas may not at all be revealed in the obvious ways I—like many others—have assumed.
No Swimming, Norman Rockwell, 1921
Oil on canvas, 25 ¼” x 22 ¼”
Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, June 4, 1921
Norman Rockwell Art Collection Trust, 1973.15
©1921 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN
Rockwell is the artist who defined America's contented normality. His images of happy, middle-class, multi-generational families; of Boy Scouts, and the exercise of Christian-based, simple moral values have played a material role in defining an idea of national unity heartening to many. The same aspects of his work are repellant to many others troubled by the racial and economic injustice overlooked in most of his oeuvre of contentment.
A gallery note at the show, supported by a short video, demonstrates that the American family Rockwell portrayed on magazine covers formed the basis of early television's sitcom families. Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet simply continued in sound and action the families solidly established by years of Rockwell's still, two-dimensional stories. But Rockwell's self-generated white neighborhood integrated once he left The Saturday Evening Post in the 1960's and moved to Look magazine. It seems that the white families for which he's so famous arose in part from editorial policy. The Post would not have Blacks represented on its cover except in the roles of servants. The Problem We All Live With was published in Look.
The Problem We All Live With, Norman Rockwell, 1963
Oil on canvas, 36” x 58”
Illustration for Look, January 14, 1964
Norman Rockwell Museum Collection, NRM.1975.1
Licensed by Norman Rockwell Licensing, Niles, IL.
"I'm not a fine art man," Rockwell said of himself. Here he inscribes a painting to Walt Disney, "one of the really great artists." The genre of dedication invites fulsome language, but Disney might well have been an idol for Rockwell. After all, Rockwell was a professional illustrator with an enviable, lucrative gig at a leading magazine. Like Disney, he was in the business of providing delight for profit.
This charming early cover for The Saturday Evening Post, where he began at age 22, provides an amusing view of an "artist at work"—so we suppose, accustomed as we are to understanding easel and brushes as icons of the fine artist. This is no artist in a romantic sense, for the picture is dominated by the icons of the illustrator. Conspicuous are the watch and reminder of his deadline: He's not waiting for the skies to part and offer Inspiration, though he wouldn't mind it: Note the horseshoe. In functional aid of inspiration, his bookshelf holds a volume called "Dog Clips" and another called, "Models—Old Men/Boys/Pretty Girls." There's one more stout book on the shelf: "Bills." This artist is a working man, on the clock, with bills to pay. He's sitting closer to the advertising department than the art museum.
Commercial artists work on assignments under the guidance of editors, and are governed by their rules ("No Blacks"). The job for a cover-designer is to catch and hold the consumer's eye, to make a particular population want the magazine, ultimately so it can attract advertisers. Rockwell did his job by using his vast art skills and considerable wits to tell stories visually. He explicitly considered himself a storyteller rather than the "fine art man."
Considering Rockwell's works as well-considered responses to his assignments, they are brilliant. Would I ever give that man a raise! He engages the viewer with instantly appealing stories that speak to a middle-class magazine-purchasing public. His stories are so much richer than they have to be. He is a storyteller on a level with Robert Louis Stevenson or O. Henry. His command of detail and structure, the way he develops tension and internal relationships are magnificent. And even those who dismiss his work as artistically insubstantial have to be very impressed by his narrative ability and by the flawless realistic technique that supports it, technique ideal for articulating the stories and lending them the air of truth. He made no claim to be addressing the taste of fine art consoisseurs. It's not what The Post was paying him to do.
Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, June 1, 1951
Norman Rockwell Museum Collection
©1951 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN
photo by the author
|thinned surface in Lubalin cover|
|more typical surface, fromTriple Portrait|
Rockwell carefully chose his approach to illustration. In this tour de force cover, Lubalin Redesigning the Post, 1961, he puts his colleague in the chair to work on his assignment of updating the magazine's look. Clipped to Lubalin's drawing board are back issues, including many Rockwell covers that look decidedly old-fashioned. But old-fashioned was Rockwell's choice—it was his preferred narrative voice. To make the point, though, that he was a virtuoso who could do anything he pleased, he painted this cover entirely in Lubalin's style. Not only are the content details—the furniture, the haircut, the coffee mug—all up-to-date, but even Rockwell's painting technique departs from his usual, heavily built-up application of paint. On this canvas, the paint is thinned; he uses just enough to cover, quite in keeping with the sleek, spare, contemporary message Lubalin works on. The perfect unity of message and medium extends to Rockwell's very signature, conscious of current trends in letter forms.
The stenciled Norman Rockwell signature that I've thought his trademark is in fact only one of many ways he identified himself in his work. In this exhibition, it's clear that he altered his signature to conform to the style and composition of the work. The mark of his identity is negotiable and subject to the assignment. There is never a question of Rockwell's exhibiting a personality that's not in service to the goal.
Literature distinguishes authors from narrators. Stories are told from the points of view of narrators, who are creations of real-life authors. It's the author's task to exert consistent control through mastery of techniques, which allow us to enter and remain in the narrator's point of view. Rockwell does this perfectly: There is always an emphatic point of view, but who the author/painter is—the mind creating the point of view—he doesn't reveal. Every tool in Rockwell's considerable kit serves the story, which serves his client's need. It's never about the artist's own creativity in any Romantic art historical tradition. When he places his own image in a scene, however, we can draw a few conclusions about his thoughts concerning his artistic authority.
Christmas Homecoming, Norman Rockwell, 1948
Oil on canvas, 35 ½” x 33 ½”
Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, December 25, 1948
Norman Rockwell Museum Collection, NRM.1978.10
©1948 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN
It's well-known that Rockwell worked from meticulously staged sets, from photographs and live models. The models were usually family members and his neighbors in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He used himself as a model many times too, inserting himself into crowd scenes, in a time-honored artistic tradition. In Christmas Homecoming, 1948, he is prominent, with his iconic pipe, just to the right of the hugging couple. There are two painters in this large family: Grandma Moses is pictured on the right as the frail granny. All eyes are happily on the couple; glee abounds. It strikes me that Rockwell's image of himself is significantly different. It is not all smiles. The man holds his pipe thoughtfully between his pursed lips. His eyebrows are raised, his chin is drawn down and his eyes are wide. None of his facial muscles—minutely described—form a smile. His is an analytical, observing face, the face of someone who is not emotionally involved, but is interested in the emotions. He is playing his holly-bedecked seasonal, family role. The normative role playing gives him cover to take his private mental notes.
The Discovery, Norman Rockwell, 1956
Oil on canvas, 35 ¼” x 32 ½”
Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, December 29, 1956
Norman Rockwell Art Collection Trust, NRACT.1973.5
©1956 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN
The artist's eye—Rockwell's own—is the lens through which we see The Discovery, which was The Saturday Evening Post cover for December 29, 1956, the issue just after Christmas. With Santa's suit discovered behind him in the parental bureau and surprised to have his father (we fill in) catch him, the boy's face registers not only the surprise of being caught snooping, but of the inescapable shock of oncoming disillusionment. He is putting two and two together facing Father, through whose very eye we are looking. And Father is no other than unmediated Norman Rockwell: He has left his iconic pipe on the dresser—just like Santa would leave his pipe behind in a story of Christmas morning, when a child is enchanted to find that is faith has not been undermined, that Santa had really been there.
How could we get closer to Rockwell than this? It's as intimate as his work gets, for he always paints from the outside, theatrically. Though invisible to us, here he is squarely within the narration, central to the action that is defined by what he sees with his own eyes and by his son's reaction to his literal presence.
But what is Rockwell's point of view? He presents the little boy comically, not as sad or requiring sympathy. He catches him just before understanding or sentiment has set in. Nothing suggests that the narrator/Rockwell feels guilt, empathy or responsibility for his part in the scene. He remains an observer who takes the long view—literally out of the room, past the leafy wall paper to the ivy planter—a fabulous detail of perspective worked quietly into the whole tableau. He deflects emotional response to a situation "typical Americans" could interpret as fraught with emotion on both sides. Parents no more want to disclose that Santa's not real than they want to have that first discussion about sex. Since the narrator here is Rockwell himself, we get an ambiguous, not entirely flattering view of the father. Father remains in the character of the professional illustrator, the observer finding material for a great story he can tell with style in outstanding realistic painterly technique. His son is only the model in the story.
Rockwell's Triple Self-Portrait, a 1959 Post cover, would seem to be the occasion in which Norman Rockwell reveals himself. But again, this is a magazine cover and the mission is to sell the issue, not himself. By 1959 Rockwell would have been a celebrity himself, so his image would have been a legitimate subject. He handles this, though, in his professional, self-effacing, ironic way. He knows how to tell a great story without getting into the middle of it, even when the title character is Norman Rockwell. This painting has been written about by many, with emphasis on the contrast between the image of the public man—produced on the canvas under the self-portraits of Durer, Rembrandt, Picasso and Van Gogh—while the mirrored image and rear images of himself—resemble an elderly turtle with long wrinkly neck and outsized derriere. The whole piece is in fact designed to deny us a look at Norman Rockwell. He gives us a teasing, incomplete idealized portrait over the famous, stenciled non-signature.
I think the message of this painting is that he has nothing more to tell us about himself; that he's contented to be where he is in the art world, an artist admired for his superior workmanship and and Yankee work ethic, who is not seeking greatness. His mirror is a traditional, 18th century design, all New England, Federal period—all-American, and propped up on a vernacular caned, country chair. The man it reflects is workmanly and opaque—those good, New England virtues, of which keeping one's counsel is certainly one.
The easel, which held a horseshoe when he portrayed a youthful illustrator drawing blanks in 1938, now bears the helmet of a Roman legionnaire, thus making a connection to the grandeur and authority of antiquity, bolstering the authority lent by the great European self-portraits on the right. On the (American) left, he's hung sketches of himself that amount to cartoons, all with exaggerated facial expressions that mimic self-important expressions, caricatures of a portrait-worthy subject. The very act of self-portraiture, this suggests, is attached to traditions from another world, traditions he can only imitate irreverently because they require him to wear a nonsensical hat of traditions that don't fit.
Although Rockwell balances his pallet of oils and holds a paintbrush to the canvas, the portrait he's making is either a charcoal or graphite drawing, as its texture—even in reproduction—attests. Are we even to take this drawing to be his product?
I think that Triple Self-Portrait is a sort of artistic shrug. This cover seems to be his way of affirming that his artistic ambition was to be the cleverest, most innovative and successful of commercial artists, "and here's your proof if any doubt remains," he seems to add. He likes being work-a-day Rockwell, not Van Gogh of the legendary inner life.
Ultimately, I think that Triple Self-Portrait isn't a self-portrait at all. It's a portrait that illustrator Norman Rockwell devised of a man the public took to be The Artist Norman Rockwell. The real Rockwell will always be seen from behind as a comic figure with icons of his trade. He was a master worker of artful illusion—of the world he wished magazines would not only sell, but could invoke through him—as long as he could keep out of it.
Art Critic, Norman Rockwell, 1955
Oil on canvas, 39 ½” x 36 ¼”
Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, April 16, 1955
Norman Rockwell Museum Collection, NRM.1998.4
©1955 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN