So you think you know Norman Rockwell, eh? I thought I did. Turns out there are multiple Norman Rockwells, not just the one whose hundreds of Saturday Evening Post magazine covers and their ubiquitous reproductions routinely prompt eye-rolling condescension among the terminally hip.
As "American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell" suggests, the time may be ripe for a reappraisal of Rockwell, who died in 1978 at age 84. This retrospective, opening Saturday at the Museum of Art/Fort Lauderdale, is at the forefront of what appears to be a Rockwell revival. It has already drawn crowds to the artist's namesake museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and to the Detroit Institute of Arts. Rockwell is also the focus of a second traveling exhibition as well as a Smithsonian show that is scheduled for next year. (The latter will be drawn from the collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, just two of Rockwell's Hollywood admirers.) A book called Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera, by Ron Schick, has just been published, providing a look at how the artist worked from elaborately staged photographic models. And the current issue of Vanity Fair includes a lengthy David Kamp feature on this most American of artists.
Although he's an unapologetic Rockwell revisionist, Kamp speculates that the most recent resurgence of interest in Rockwell may be something as simple as nostalgia for less complicated times: "In our current climate of remorseful post-affluence — in our collective pondering of the question 'What were we thinking?' — Rockwell's painted vignettes draw us back to the quotidian, dialed-down pleasures of American life before it got so out of whack."
The irony is that Rockwell's idealized America, or at least the version most associated with him, never really existed in the first place. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that such an America was always only part of the picture. After all, the artist's lifetime spanned, among other things, the Great Depression, two world wars, wars in Korea and Vietnam, the social and political unrest of the 1960s, and Watergate. It's also worth noting that Rockwell was hardly a product of the American heartland but was born on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
Rockwell, for his part, admitted that his was an incomplete vision of America. In the autobiographical 1960 book My Adventures as an Illustrator (and he never claimed to be more than an illustrator), the artist acknowledges: "The view of life I communicate in my pictures excludes the sordid and ugly. I paint life as I would like it to be."
Even so, Rockwell occasionally dipped his toe into the world as it really was rather than the world as he preferred to perceive it. Apparently he was galled by the Saturday Evening Post's rule that blacks be portrayed only in service positions, and in 1963, he painted the masterful The Problem We All Live With, the illustration that launched his relationship with Look magazine. (Among his other clients over the years were Boys' Life and Ladies Home Journal.)
The painting is an astonishingly visceral document of the civil rights movement and certainly not the sort of thing anyone had come to expect of Rockwell. It portrays the real-life story of Ruby Bridges, a 6-year-old girl who in 1960 was the first black child to integrate an all-white New Orleans school. The girl, dressed all in white and striding with straight-backed dignity (or, more likely, fear), is flanked by a quartet of U.S. marshals as she walks alongside a wall defaced with racist graffiti and the messy remnants of a tomato that has been hurled at her.
Contrast this with Boy in a Dining Car, a 1946 Post cover in which a prototypical Rockwell boy — white, of course — calculates a tip for the smiling, much-older black waiter who stands deferentially nearby. It's a beautifully composed image, but it's also worlds away from the gritty realism of The Problem We All Live With. Rockwell had considerably more range than he's usually credited with.
Rockwell went on to wrestle with another civil rights theme in Murder in Mississippi (1965), which sought to document the infamous slayings of a trio of activists. Despite a rich stew of influences that included Goya, the image never quite gelled as The Problem We All Live With had, even though Rockwell worked on several versions of it, one of which was published in Look as Southern Injustice.
Along with these landmark works, "American Chronicles" includes another three dozen or so Rockwell paintings plus a variety of associated ephemera such as posters, advertisements, correspondence, sketches, and drawings. And the exhibition concludes with an eye-popping display on the museum's curving south wall: framed copies of all 323 of Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post covers (many of the original covers no longer exist). This fascinating microcosm allows us to chart the artist's development over the course of the eight years he worked for the magazine.
Regardless of whether you connect with his subject matter — I tend to cringe at his facility with caricature — you have to admit that, at his best, Rockwell was a terrific painter. You need only look at a work like 1956's The Discovery, in which a boy stumbles upon his dad's Santa suit, to see an extraordinary sense of composition at work — if you can get past the gee-whiz look on the kid's face.