Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 26, 2000
Maureen Hennessey Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999. Cloth (0810963922)
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, November 6, 1999–January 30, 2000; Chicago Historical Society, February 26–May 21, 2000; The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., June 17–September 24, 2000; San Diego Museum of Art, October 28–December 31, 2000; Phoenix Art Museum, February 24-May 6, 2001; The Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge, June 9–October 8, 2001; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, November 7, 2001–February 11, 2002

Laurie Norton Moffatt, Director of the Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge, forthrightly states her agenda in her essay “The People’s Painter”: “Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People invites reflection on Rockwell as a force in twentieth-century American art and culture” (24). Moffatt reorients the critical debate by emphasizing Rockwell’s cultural influence, rather than dithering about his status as either an artist or an illustrator. The admixture of popular culture studies and art history introduces Rockwell into an expanded art historical canon that embraces both avant-garde and kitsch. The exhibition catalogue reflects Moffatt’s methodology: Fourteen art historians, historians, and pop culturists attest to Rockwell’s cultural importance, while quietly asserting his artistry. The lavishly illustrated catalogue is less cohesive than either the exhibition or the video (Norman Rockwell: Painting America, 86 minutes, Winstar Home Entertainment, 1999, videocassette) but is all the more useful for the variety of viewpoints expressed. The essays tend to undertake at least one of four tasks: to explore a single image, to provide context, to offer a testimonial based on acquaintance with the artist, or to reconsider Rockwell.

Arguably the hook upon which the other essays hang is “Norman Rockwell: A New Viewpoint” by Judy L. Larson and Maureen Hart Hennessey, who examine Rockwell’s career, themes, and working methods, thereby providing a backdrop for the more personal considerations offered by the other essayists. Larson and Hennessey trace Rockwell’s life and career, touching lightly upon his marriages and his history of depression. Having established the arc of his career, the authors organize Rockwell’s work into four thematic groups–celebrating the commonplace, inventing America, drawing on the past, and honoring the American spirit–arguing that Rockwell’s images provided his American audience with the means to articulate a shared experience. At the Chicago Historical Society, these themes also divided the exhibition into four segments; each demarcated by a vivid wall color. Finally, the authors illustrate Rockwell’s process by tracing Art Critic (1955) through studies, photographs, and compositional choices to the final, witty painting. Perhaps because this essay reflects the structure and tone of the exhibition, it proves to be both more instructive and less critical than the other essays. The authors overlook Rockwell’s frustration with his artistic status, assume that the American experience is unitary, and arrest his artistic process before reaching its mechanically reproduced conclusion.

Writers reconsidering Rockwell assert his ongoing popularity and broad appeal as evidence for his cultural importance. Ned Rifkin, Director of the High Museum of Art, compares Rockwell to Daumier, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Warhol, each of whom made images for mechanical reproduction without losing artistic face. Rifkin also fruitfully compares both Rockwell’s themes and his process to the contemporary films of Frank Capra. Moffatt in turn notes that Rockwell was hoist by the petard separating fine art from commercial illustration and merits art historical reconsideration due to his cultural significance and enduring popularity. Similarly, Thomas Hoving, who has popularized connoisseurship, quips that “art history can be guilty of typecasting” and contends that “part of Rockwell’s importance in art is that he was one of the most successful visual mass communicators of the century” (29). In the final essay, Robert Rosenblum asserts the need to reconsider Rockwell by describing his own epiphanic experience during a chance visit the Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge: “Inside, without the distractions of modern art, I became an instant convert to the enemy camp,” (183) and he concludes that “I, for one, am happy now to love Rockwell for his own sake. . . . To enjoy his unique genius, all you have to do is relax” (185).

Robert Coles, a child psychiatrist, speaks from personal acquaintance with both the artist and Ruby Bridges, the subject of one of Rockwell’s most famous paintings, The Problem We All Live With (1964). Coles draws upon his interviews with Ruby Bridges, her father, and opponents of desegregation to set the scene that Rockwell had interpreted through his painting. He describes a conversation with Ruby in which she compared Rockwell’s depiction to the television coverage: “That picture [by Rockwell] is about me, I guess–and what you see in the news is about the trouble on the street” (111). Although Rockwell’s preparatory studies and photographs for the painting supplement the essay, Coles–a scientist rather than an art historian–does not discuss the process by which Rockwell composed the image that so poignantly captured Ruby’s experience.

Peter Rockwell also draws upon his personal knowledge of the artist, his father, and reminds the reader that Rockwell’s public persona was as carefully crafted as his sophisticated technique. Although Rockwell prioritized storytelling and knew that the storyteller must project a credible persona for his audience, he cared deeply about painting, and this intellectual interest–which was at odds with his folksy demeanor–sometimes manifested itself in nuanced paintings about painting.

Although each essay provides some context gleaned from personal experience, art history, or history, a handful specifically explore the cultural context of Rockwell’s work. Karal Ann Marling provides an informative essay about Rockwell’s influential images of Christmas, which featured both Santa Claus and Dickensian characters. Maureen Hart Hennessey discusses the Four Freedoms (1943), arguably Rockwell’s best-known paintings, placing the commission in its wartime context. Anne Knutson helpfully discusses The Saturday Evening Post, analyzing the relationship between Rockwell’s values and those of the publication. In “Rebelling against Rockwell,” Steven Heller, art director of The New York Times Book Review, describes Rockwell’s influence upon magazine illustration in an essay that throws less light upon Rockwell than upon trends in magazine illustration during the 1980s.

Perhaps the three most interesting essays are those by Wanda M. Corn, Dave Hickey, and Neil Harris. In “Ways of Seeing,” Corn argues that Rockwell’s painting of The Connoisseur (1962), an old-fashioned fellow confronting a painting à la Pollock, concerns his own status in the fine art world after the advent of abstract expressionism, which introduced both a new mode of creation and a new mode of reception. Rockwell’s painting, she argues, reflects his engagement in the critical debates about the relationship between the beholder and the painting and his understanding that his way of seeing, illustrated by Art Critic, coexisted with a new epistemology.

Combining rigorous formal analysis with broad references to art, music, and culture, Dave Hickey proceeds from a close inspection of After the Prom (1957) to a broader examination of Rockwell’s oeuvre, particularly the artist’s use of the European narrative tradition. Hickey also probes the shift in Rockwell’s subject matter in the 1960s, when he moved from narrating small-town, American life to illustrating social justice with his “big pictures,” such as Golden Rule (1961), concluding that Rockwell’s later efforts reduced the “Democratic History” painter to a mere illustrator of issues. Hickey also claims that Rockwell’s reputation as a guardian of traditional values is misplaced. Rather, Rockwell’s images, such as Saying Grace (1951), advocate “difference and disobedience” (125), following one’s personal beliefs despite public pressure to conform.

Alone amid the pantheon of experts tapped to eulogize Rockwell, Neil Harris dissents from the celebratory tone of the catalogue as he describes his disdain for Rockwell’s depictions of small town life, that as a youthful urbanite he had deemed irrelevant and sometimes disturbing. Although Rockwell’s self-proclaimed intention was to recapture the joy he felt in summers spent in the country, this essay reminds the reader that Rockwell “captured only one of many Americas” (140).

This reasonably priced and richly illustrated catalogue suggests that Norman Rockwell does indeed deserve reconsideration both as a cultural force and as an artist whose narratives illustrated a prevailing ideal about American life in the American century. Occasional disagreements between writers–as when Thomas Hoving claims that “Rockwell didn’t sugarcoat” (30) while Neil Harris laments that “the taste for sugar coatings has only increased” (141)–underscore the interpretative nature of this wide-ranging study. The effort to recuperate Rockwell is undermined only by the designer’s practice of inserting irrelevant color plates into essays, as if these images are advertisements–or illustrations–that can interrupt the text without impinging upon it. This concern aside, the catalogue provides a core sample of positive opinion clearly intended for an audience as broad as that envisioned by the painter himself.

Kristin U. Fedders
Earlham College