Saturday, Dec 14, 2019 at 10:00am
Norman Rockwell’s heart-warming depictions of everyday life made him the best-known and most beloved American artist of the 20th century. He lived and worked through some of the most eventful periods in the nation’s history and his paintings vividly chronicled those times. His images often served as a mirror of American life, but just as often reflected not who we really were so much as what we thought and felt – and what we endeavored to become.
Norman Rockwell’s America exhibits a remarkable collection of 22 paintings as well as drawings, original posters and all 323 vintage Saturday Evening Post magazine covers spanning six decades, allowing for a comprehensive look at his distinguished career. The original works give visitors a chance to see Rockwell’s accomplished technique and superb craftsmanship, which are sometimes overlooked in the more widely seen reproductions of his work.
Although Rockwell is most associated with small-town America, he was in fact born and raised in New York City. Determined to become an artist, he enrolled in art classes at the New York School of Art at age 14 and left high school to attend the National Academy of Design. He later transferred to The Art Students League where he learned the skills on which he relied for his entire career.
Rockwell’s first commission, at age 16, was for Christmas cards. By the age of 19 he was Art Editor for Boys’ Life magazine, published by the Boy Scouts of America. A year later, he landed his first cover for the nation’s most popular magazine, the Saturday Evening Post. Six more Post covers immediately followed, along with illustrations for other important magazines of the era. Most readers immediately recognized his covers and connected to the charming portraits of American life. Readers became fans and followed his covers through the Roaring Twenties, the Depression years and World War II. His fame reached movie star status.
During the 1920s Rockwell visited Europe several times and he observed how similar people were everyplace he traveled. The artist was determined to make that point to our diverse nation at home and his characters began to poignantly share their emotions and challenging moments with readers.
The Thirties marked a decade of economic depression punctuated by widespread poverty and suffering. Rockwell chose not to portray the despair but rather focused on the differences between Americans, creating scenes illustrating the contrast between “haves” and “have nots.” In 1934, for the first time on a Post cover, he painted an African American boy chatting with a wealthy white woman who had fallen from her horse. The bare-footed child stands in contrast to her gleaming leather riding boots (Woman in Riding Habit Fallen Off Horse, March 17, 1934). Such art works speak to Rockwell’s growing social consciousness.\
With the onset of World War II, while Rockwell portrayed the home front with flirts and soda jerks his recurring ‘Willie Gillis’ character, based upon his Vermont neighbor, was an “everyman” and unlikely warrior. When Rockwell painted the triumphant Rosie the Riveter (May 29, 1943), it became a perpetual iconic image for women’s rights. His sequel to ‘Rosie’ three months later was Miss Liberty (September 4, 1943), a woman carrying the symbols of various men’s jobs, which were previously unattainable. Rockwell’s cover Disabled Veteran (July 1, 1944) was a portrait of another neighbor as a wounded soldier.
In 1943, the entire nation joined together when he created the Four Freedoms, four now classic paintings depicting freedom of speech, freedom from want, freedom to worship and freedom from fear, which toured in an exhibition raising $135 million for the war effort through the sale of war bonds.
The Saturday Evening Post covers became Rockwell’s greatest legacy. Yet he parted ways with the Post in 1963 and began to work for Look magazine, where he had more creative freedom to pursue his interest in global, political, and social issues. One example of this work is The Problem We All Live With, which deals with the issue of school desegregation. The painting depicts a young African American girl, Ruby Bridges, flanked by federal marshals, walking to school past a wall defaced by racist graffiti. (The painting was displayed in the White House when Bridges met with President Obama in 2011.) Rockwell’s artwork thereafter provoked others to think more seriously.
Rockwell was more than just a chronicler of the times. He had a genius for knowing which stories to tell, how to tell them, and what details to emphasize. It has been said that a Rockwell painting does not require an explanation, a caption, or even a title. It speaks to us directly.
Norman Rockwell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom at age 83, a year before his death. Today, he is considered America’s preeminent artist/illustrator and perhaps our greatest storyteller – his most enduring subject matter was capturing the American spirit.
“I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed.”
–Norman Rockwell (1894-1978)
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