hits and misses in rockwell’s story

The new Norman Rockwell show at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art is, among many things, a delight. But there’s a fallacy at work, too, and no one’s made a peep about it. Least of all the New York Times, which I am currently eying with a distrustful, wary eye and will get to in a moment.

The good? Norman Rockwell was a masterful visual narrator, and the exhibition’s minimalist attitude toward wall text, save for a few inane quotes from Rockwell collectors Steven Spielberg and especially George Lucas (who both have manifested interesting reflections on Rockwell in interviews, which makes the quote selection all the more disappointing), showcases this talent.

First Trip to a Beauty Shop, Top Value trading stamp catalogue, 1972

Rockwell’s ability to “tell entire stories in a single, frozen image,” in Spielberg’s words, is a lost art. It’s an illustrator’s gift, and Rockwell was the best of all illustrators. We still tell stories in pictures, but they unfold in sequences, or come with subtitles (comic books, comic strips, New Yorker covers). For an image, much less a “fine arts” painting, to carry an entire account of an eight year old’s first, monumental visit to Mom’s fancy salon one Saturday afternoon, and her surprised, ebullient delight at this stylish coiffure — well that’s rare.

Happy Birthday Miss Jones, The Saturday Evening Post, 1956

Or there’s this one, which perfectly, effortlessly captures Miss Jones’s proud, fond smile at her pupils. She’s positively beaming at them. They’ve remembered her birthday, carpeting the edge of her desk with apples, flowers, and wrapped gifts, and the pack of them have scrawled “Happy birthday!” across the blackboard — clearly intending to surprise her and now settled into their seats with an innocent air of “What?” while the dropped chalk gives them all away. And since I’ve been on Miss Jones’s end of happy surprise, I’m inclined to think she’s impressed, thinking to herself, Well, look how sweet they are when they try. The painting is simple, but lavishly detailed, and it’s an accomplishment. And many more follow this pattern.

Window Washer, Saturday Evening Post, 1960

But there’s a real problem here, too, and if the museum was admirably hands-off in letting viewers explore the stories for their own sake, without chiming in with biographical irrelevancies, it seriously dropped the ball somewhere else.

Nowhere in this beautiful show do the curators mention why Rockwell created these images — or for whom. They don’t talk about the commissions, or the fact that these pictures were carefully and purposefully constructed. You’re left to assume that Rockwell was simply mirroring the reality of his own time. And you are wrong. As Lucas says, “[Rockwell] captures the emotion and more importantly the fantasy, the ideal of that particular time in American history” (emphasis mine).

Triple Self Portrait, Saturday Evening Post, 1960

Everyone considers Rockwell the quintessential painter of Americana. Rockwell equals hand-crafted toys, malt shops and homemade ice cream parlors, fishing trips with Dad and bundt cakes with Mom, pigtails and gingham blouses, golden retrievers, and playing baseball in the street until dark. That was the word on the street in the galleries, in the exhibition’s comment book, and in the Times’s disappointingly shallow review, which avers, “This exhibition offers us the chance to step out of the vast marble-white spaces of Washington and into a world where Americans convene in old-fashioned drugstores and barbershops, conducting themselves with a sense of integrity and fair play, with gumption and whimsy.”

The Toy Maker, The Literary Digest, 1920

It’s as though everyone forgot about context and what exactly an illustrator does. Rockwell created these images for a magazine. They were cover images, and the job of a cover image is to sell the magazine. These images were appealingly nostalgic in the year of their creation. They were, precisely, not reflective of the contemporary reality. For example, people didn’t make toys by hand in 1920 (above image). The Industrial Revolution had already happened! This painting depicts a revival moment in toy-making. Nowadays, people look at the date — 1920 — and think, “Ah, the 1920s, those were the days”, when audiences in the 1920s, too, were looking and thinking “Oh, the 1870s, those were the days.” There’s a distance between Rockwell and his subjects that’s gotten flattened with time. This exhibition does nothing to rectify that.

Spirit of America, Boy Scouts of America Calendar, 1929

It is no slight to Rockwell’s artistry to say that much of his work — and almost all of it in this exhibition — was created for immediate public consumption, like a magazine cover or calendar, and as such it had to cater to the tastes of the broadest possible audience. The Times ran the above image as an encapsulation of Rockwell’s oeuvre and, by extension, the real America he painted. But they never mention that this painting was a commission BY the Boy Scouts FOR their annual calendar. That changes things. It wasn’t conceived to succinctly illustrate traditional American values; it was conceived to satisfy a patron’s request. It’s marketing.

The Stuff Of Which Memories Are Made, Edison Mazda Lampworks advertisement, 1922

Here’s another. The stuff of which memories are made. Mother and children, praying together. Surely an apt depiction of an American tradition that we, we corrupted, twenty-first century souls, have lost. Of course, it’s a beautiful, evocative painting. But it was also commissioned by a lighting company. It’s the America that the lighting company wanted you to imagine (while you bought their bulbs) — not necessarily Rockwell’s, and certainly not Rockwell’s unfettered meditation on life in 1922.

Pretending that Rockwell’s art was created to factually document small-town life as he knew it does him a disservice. The man wasn’t just painting what he saw; he was creating a mythology of America that has, for better of worse, acquired the label of “history.” Or “nostalgia.” But never what it actually was: creative license and and a constructed reality. “Rockwell’s no imaginative force, but he sure can document” — talk about damning with faint praise.

Parlay Voos Fransay?, Life, 1917

And it’s not fair to contemporary viewers, either. Because then they’re left to wander these fabulously beautiful galleries thinking, “Oh, remember that?/Oh, would you look at that. Times were so much better then,” completely forgetting the big advancements made since mid-century that make 2010 so golly-be great. It sets up a competition between then and now, and what can win against nostalgia? Is it productive to even try? I’d rather enjoy the art for what it is — designed for the broadest popular appeal and no less accomplished or lovely for it — and enjoy how far we’ve come. Civil rights, the Internet, cheap plane travel and not having to wear stockings in the summer: you never looked so good.


6 responses to this post.

  1. a) I knew nothing about Norman Rockwell; b) I know very little about art; and c) for the most part of my life, I really don’t care.

    But what a wonderfully written, cute and insightful little essay you have posted! There are facts, analyses, illustrations and opinions; and I for once am thankful I have (for the duration of the first paragraph) forced myself to read on – not only has the rest sucked me in, it has enlightened my ignorant self.

    I still believe, though, that nostalgia plays an important role in our lives. It allows us to reflect on the past – the unspecified past – and ponder on what was better then, what we have forgotten and lost. Nostalgia takes us to the good-old-times, no matter when they were. It is vital to our appreciation of the present. Time is irrelevant for this reflection.

    What makes me sad is that marketing firms know this, too. And they aren’t afraid to exploit the feelings to sell their product. Which in a way creates a vicious circle in which I appreciate art for what it is more if I know (care) about it less. Because now I can’t help but see N.R. in a less nostalgic way. All of a sudden, he isn’t the idyllic artist who can’t help himself but paint, paint, paint. He was a human being who needed to support himself, and would be willing to create a light-bulb ad if they paid him well. Oh, wait, he actually did it 🙂


  2. WOAH!!! you are a fountain of knowledge!!! i didn’t know any of this rockwell stuff. what would i do without you, art genius?!

    keep ’em comin’!!


  3. Posted by Kate on July 13, 2010 at 11:01 pm

    He really had a talent to capture the true Americana spirit… pig tails, boy scouts, blouses and all.


  4. Rockwell has been accused of being kitsch and of creating a fantasy version of Americana. But no one has so well ever created a moment that spoke volumes. You blog is post is wonderful in that it presents Rockwell for what he was: the masterful creator of a myth that we would love to be real. And, as the decades pass, the myth he created becomes even more “real” to many, the record of how things must have been way back then.


  5. I had never thought anything other than “oh, how sweet,” at Rockwell paintings. Thank you for opening my eyes! I had no idea that he painted ads and magazine covers. Awesome, awesome post.


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