Nostalgia and social consciousness in “American Chronicles” by Norman Rockwell at DAI
By Jud Yalkut
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) has to be one of the most notorious American artists and also one of the most often reviled. His ubiquitous 323 cover paintings for the Saturday Evening Post from 1916 through over 47 years brought his work into American homes with an astonishing regularity. Author Vladimir Nabokov, most known for his once scandalous “Lolita,” opined: “That Dali is really Norman Rockwell’s twin brother kidnapped by gypsies in babyhood.”
Certainly Rockwell has to be considered among the handful of significant American illustrators who changed the perceptual consciousness of the American public throughout a century alongside Maxfield Parrish, N.C. Wyeth and Rockwell Kent. Each of the aforementioned artists, like Rockwell, illustrated copious stories and articles, and created images which illuminated the advertising milieu of their times.
Critic Peter Schjeldahl has recorded that Midwestern artist Grant Wood, known for his iconic “American Gothic,” questioned his own work as photographic and decried his chances of being “a Norman Rockwell with dignity and brains.” Rockwell’s art brought a self-recognition to a broad American public who perhaps saw their own passions and foibles in his illustrative vignettes. Stephanie Haboush Plunkett, chief curator of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., wrote that: “His intricately conceived narratives imbued ordinary activities with a sense of historical importance, seizing the moment almost as it was about to fade.”
“American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell,” organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum, runs at the Dayton Art Institute (DAI) as its featured special exhibition beginning Saturday, November 12, running through February 5, 2012. The exhibition features 42 original canvases by Rockwell from the museum’s collection alongside a wall of tear sheets of all of the covers he created for the Saturday Evening Post, as well as archival materials like preliminary sketches, photographs, color studies and detailed drawings.
Further personalizing the exhibition experience will be the opportunity for visitors to have their pictures taken before a life-size Saturday Evening Post cover, with props available for those desiring to create a Rockwellian scene. These images will be posted to the museum’s Flickr and Facebook pages.
Rockwell, who spent the majority of his life living in rural and small town New England, was born on February 3, 1894 in New York City, a descendant of John Rockwell (1588-1662) who immigrated to America from Somerset, England around 1635. He entered the Chase Art School at the age of 14, following this early training with stints at the National Academy of Design, where he labored over “dull and tedious” drawings from plaster casts, and the Art Students League in New York where he finally studied with respected teachers, studying anatomy, with a dedication which earned him the sobriquet of “The Deacon.”
Rockwell’s first professional job was doing illustrations for the New York publisher McBride, Nast & Company, and his first studio he shared with two other young artists on the West Side, then relocating to a studio on the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge. A summer in Provincetown, Mass. studying with New England realist Charles W. Hawthorne reinforced his appreciation of the techniques of classical artists like Titian and Franz Hals.
The early work
At age 19, Rockwell became the art editor for Boy’s Life at the salary of $50 per month from 1913-16, during which time he executed the monochromatic 1914 illustrations for Everett T. Tomlinson’s “Scouting with Daniel Boone.” These included this exhibition’s portrait “Daniel Boone, Pioneer Scout,” and the scout’s escorting of a convoy of 27 men through Kentucky in “The Road Led Through the Passes of the Hills,” both painted en grisaille (in gray) in a series of either brown/sepia or gray for simple reproduction.
Rockwell’s first cover for the Saturday Evening Post was the mockingly real “Boy with Baby Carriage,” published in the May 20, 1916 issue and painted in the former New Rochelle, NY studio of Frederic Remington, for which he received the glorious sum of $75. Rockwell’s oil “No Swimming” (1921) played on a favorite theme of his, inspired by summers as a boy in upstate New York, initially posed live by young models whom he enticed with a pile of nickels, five of which were transferred to their pile for each 25 minutes posed. Later, he would use model photographs, including some of himself, for direct inspiration.
The uncharacteristically broadly executed “Artists Costume Ball” (1921), with its ruff-collared and white-capped grinning clown, was painted for a poster to advertise an annual fund-raising ball for the New Rochelle Art Association. Pursuing his love of costumes as enhancements for his subjects, Rockwell portrayed a deadly sin in “The Glutton” (1923) as a thin man in pilgrim dress trapped in a stock for the then satirical magazine Life. He made use of his extensive historical reference collection, props and costumes until it was ultimately destroyed in 1943 in his then Vermont studio.
For Lincoln’s birthday, Rockwell painted for the Post a portrait of a shop clerk reading law books over a cracker barrel in “The Law Student” (1927), with a frayed-edge portrait of the young Lincoln propped behind him. That same year, he painted “The Stay at Homes (Outward Bound)” of a sailor, a lad and a dog watching a sailing ship from a hill as part of a 49-year commitment, beginning in 1924, for the Ladies’ Home Journal, as well as a 1928 whimsical portrait of circus people, including a gesticulating clown, playing “Checkers” captured with a bright palette on a yellow ground.
Rockwell started using unconventional layouts for some of his Post covers, floating his subjects in a white field over double bands of black lines, as in the impishly volatile crouching tax collector with whistle and stop watch behind the sign “Welcome to Elmville” (1929), and the boisterously bloated coachman of “Merrie Christmas” (1929) based on Charles Dickens’ character of Tony Weller in “The Pickwick Papers,” who Rockwell described as “on the stage box he is king; elsewhere he is a mere greenhorn.”
Though he never had an opportunity of illustrating Dickens, Rockwell was always influenced by the early readings of his novels by his father and “the variety, sadness, humor, treachery, the twists and turns of life; the sharp impressions of dirt, food, inns, horses, streets, and people,” he said once. A similar concern for evocative characters was stimulated by a commission by book publisher George Macy for celebrated characters in American fiction like “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn,” for the first of which he chose “Ichabod Crane” (c. 1937) from Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
The real guy
Norman Rockwell always had an ironically humorous side, bordering on broad satire at times, which he was not averse to turning onto himself. Perhaps one of his most beloved and yet elliptical images is his “Artist Facing Blank Canvas (The Deadline)” (1938) in which he is portrayed surrounded by his references, museum reproductions, a palette on the floor instead of his usual palette table, a horseshoe hanging from a peg on his easel, his perpetual pipe in his back pocket, while scratching his head while holding a brush and contemplating his “tabula rasa.”
“This is not a caricature of myself,” he said. “I really look like this.”
This irony is triply illustrated in the “Triple Self-Portrait” for the February 1, 1960 cover of the Post, where he defied his usual penchant for neatness with scattered matchsticks, a brass bucket with smoldering fumes, a golden helmet atop his easel, and push-pinned portrait reproductions of Dürer, Rembrandt, Picasso and Van Gogh, while perusing his own image in a eagle-topped gold-framed mirror.
“He was an excellent draftsman, colorist and narrative realist painter,” said Kay Koeninger, associate professor of art at Sinclair Community College who will give a members’ lecture on Rockwell at DAI at 7 p.m., Thursday. November 10. “He made the choice not to explore modernism … it is documented that he thought highly of Picasso and Pollock.”
A 1961 photograph by Louis Lamone shows Rockwell reenacting Pollock’s drip method for “The Connoisseur” in his South Street studio in Stockbridge, Mass.
The real work
During World War II, Rockwell’s only image of a soldier in battle was for a poster which stated “Let’s give him enough and on time” because he stated that he, “Didn’t like to do pictures that glorified killing, even in a good cause.”
Spurred on his second wife Mary’s liberal beliefs, he pitched to the Ordinance Department in Washington, D.C. the idea of illustrating the Four Freedoms ideals of Franklin Delano Roosevelt articulated in a 1941 address to Congress, an idea finally realized for Curtis Publishing starting with the posing of eight models for “Freedom of Speech.” This work for the Post with its earnestly eloquent citizen and its 1942 companions was Rockwell in rare form. “Freedom of Worship” cited “each according to the dictates of his own conscience” the Thanksgiving dinner of “Freedom from Want,” and the protective parents of “Freedom from Fear,” were eventually sent on a 16-city tour to encourage the sale of war bonds.
Koeninger notes that even though Rockwell had worked for a very conservative “middlebrow” magazine, the 2001 biography of Rockwell by Laura Claridge revealed that Rockwell was also an early opponent of the American war in Vietnam; because of this, he ended up on Nixon’s “enemies list.”
Rockwell’s burgeoning social consciousness is nowhere more apparent than in his images protesting the abuse of civil rights. His most famous late image is the young black girl being escorted to an all-white school by deputy U.S. marshals before a concrete wall besmirched by “Nigger” appellations and thrown tomatoes, called “The Problem We All Live With” (1963). He felt he had to atone for the Post dictating only showing African-Americans in service positions in earlier illustrations.
Illustrating the murder of civil rights workers in Philadelphia and Mississippi, he posed his son Jarvis as activist Michael Schwerner supporting the wounded James Chaney in the Goyaesque and powerful “Murder in Mississippi” (1965) which metaphosed through charcoal preliminaries and oil color studies, many of which are included in “American Chronicles.” Rockwell himself wore a shirt stained with human blood from a concealed source to represent Schwerner’s shirt when he was killed, not wanting to ask anyone else to wear it.
“I do think his later works dealing with civil rights are quite important and daring for the times,” said Koeninger. “… In some ways break way from the framework of illustration.”
The total expanse of Rockwell’s “American Chronicles” obliges us to look again at the scope of his work and his dogged insistence on the human qualities of life and experience. Most significantly, Rockwell’s son Peter recalls him saying, “Do you know why Brueghel was able to paint such beautiful trees? Because Brueghel painted each tree as an individual.”
The Dayton Art Institute is located at 456 Belmonte Park North in Dayton. Admission is $15 for adults, $13 for seniors (60+), students (18+ w/ID) and active military, $10 for youth (ages 7-17), and free for children (ages 6 & under), with members free for their first visit and $10 for return visits. Public programs include: “Idealizing America: Norman Rockwell and Irving Berlin” with Michael Lasser, Thursday, November 17 at 7 p.m. ($5 Members, $8 non-members); a Family Workshop with Tim Bowers, Children’s Book Illustrator, Saturday, November 19, 1-3 p.m. ($25 adult/child, members; and 30 adult/child, non-members); “Norman Rockwell’s Civil Rights” with Cincinnati Art Museum’s Kirstie Craven , Saturday, December 10 at 2 p.m. (Free to members,; $8 non-members); and “Ruby Bridges: Her Story” with Civil Rights icon speaking on her role in integrating an all-white New Orleans school that inspired the nation and Rockwell (in partnership with Sinclair Community College), Thursday, January 19, 2012 at 7 p.m. ($10 members; $15 non-members; $8 non-Sinclair students). (937) 223-5277 or visit www.daytonartinstitute.org/rockwell.
Reach DCP freelance writer Jud Yalkut at JudYalut@DaytonCityPaper.com.