American icon Norman Rockwell comes to the Crocker
The Art of Norman Rockwell
Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento
When: Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday – Sunday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday; closed Monday (except holidays. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mon. Jan. 21, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day) Exhibit runs through Feb. 3.
Admission: $10 adults, $8 students and seniors, $5 ages 7-17, children 6 and under free
Info: (916) 808-7000, www.crockerartmuseum.org
Now on view at the Crocker Art Museum is “The Art of Norman Rockwell.” Dismissed for years for not being substantial enough or a bit too much of a nostalgic or simply just as an illustrator and not a true artist, this collection, which includes a great number of original paintings as well as an exhaustive collection of his magazine covers, puts that notion to rest.
Rockwell (1894-1978) was a famous painter and illustrator who became famous for iconic images he created for publications from Boys Life to Look magazine. But it was The Saturday Evening Post covers for which he is most famous.
These illustrations have become so iconic and so American that to even say something is “Rockwellian” or “Rockwellesque” stirs up an immediate response in people’s minds. His work epitomizes the everyman, his life, his neighbors – even the family dog – and the little moments that compose our lives.
Critics often called his work “over sentimental,” an American ideal that never existed. That is both true and untrue. The world that exists in these illustrations is often solely of white people, where the only representations of color are in subservient positions, a rule the Post enforced with Rockwell. But more often than not, the world that exists is often the way folks remember the past, their childhoods, and the small moments that truly compose life.
Paintings such as “The Discovery,” where a little boy stands shocked to find a Santa suit in his parent’s bedroom dresser drawer.
Or the whimsical painting, “Family Tree,” where Rockwell depicts the beginnings the of an American family tree with a pirate buccaneer and his wench wife, leading to, among others, a civil war soldier, a wild west saloon girl and cowboy to essentially the Doris Day-Eisenhower ideal.
Another classic is “Christmas Homecoming,” which depicts a young man coming home for Christmas, the large family looking on, his suitcase bulging with dirty laundry. Look for Rockwell himself smoking his famous pipe. Or the infamous “Gossip,” where we see the spreading of a rumor comes full circle to the person who told it getting yelled at.
The real world intrudes
Norman Rockwell illustrated for several publications but it was win Look magazine that he tackled the turbulent era the 60s were creating. He had done some political work before. “The Four Freedoms” for example were inspired by the radio speech President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave about universal rights (Freedom from fear, Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Worship and Freedom from Want).
Rockwell painted several presidents often several times. Lincoln the most with eight, but Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon all received the Rockwell touch.
Norman Rockwell’s work was seen by millions. At this time in history, before the rise of the TV networks, Life magazine and the Saturday Evening Post were the major sources of news. So when Rockwell did tackle the issues of race, it was felt and seen across the country. Most notably the gorgeous and profoundly moving paintings “Aid From the Padre” and “The Problem We All Live With.” The former depicts the murder of civil rights workers in Mississippi.
The Crocker has put the entire creation process on display, including the news articles, the rough drafts, the study he uses of his own son to draw it, and the final versions which went to press.
“The Problem We All Live With” shows the little African American girl, Ruby Bridges, being escorted to school by Federal marshals, the wall covered in racist jargon, a smashed tomato which has been thrown at her, while Ruby, in pristine white dress, proudly and defiantly walks on.
In person, the details in the painting are sublime; the gravel in the corner, the materials she’s got in her arm, the juices of the tomatoes going down the wall. The marshals are headless so the entire emphasis is on this petite young girl; each detail so refined, the painting borders on photo realism. It is something all together different seeing it in person.
The American Ideal
Norman Rockwell painted over 4,000 pieces of original art, over 300 covers for the Saturday Evening Post alone, covers of Look, Works for Publishing houses, even movie posters. Norman Rockwell depicted the new American reality, post-war, complete with America’s new affluence, car, homes and family vacations.
Rockwell’s paintings and illustrations capture so much about not only American life but life in general. Infused in his work, is a lot of wit and a mastery of storytelling. Rockwell paintings are optimistic and idealistic; there is harmony in personal relationships. Rockwell chose to depict achievement rather than defeat or our problems, sometimes painting life the way he wished it were. That all is well in the world.
And for those critics who dismissed his work for not being a modern painter: check out the January Post cover, 1962. In it we see a traditional Rockwell man standing in front of a perfect Jackson Pollack abstract painting. In one painting Rockwell covers two worlds of art, perfectly; the abstract modern art of post-war America and the everyman encountering these images.
To quote Scott Shields, the Crocker Museum’s Chief Curator, Rockwell “didn’t create a foreign world. He enhanced our own.”