We saw Mr. Rockwell here in the L By L archives last December at Christmas, appropriately enough. I found a nice series of Saturday Evening Post covers and published them to give us all that unique nostalgic sense that Norman Rockwell's work always brings.
I've just come from an exhibit of Norman's work (my pal Norman!) at the American Museum of Art here in Washington, DC. This exhibit is culled from the collections of those two Norman- wannabee hucksters of the silver screen, Steven Speilberg and George Lucas. And, no matter what they may think of themselves and each other, neither one's work even begins to plum the depth of Rockwell's commitment to an America of the heart, which may or may not have existed physically, but certainly exists emotionally for anyone who grew up in the Rockwell era (1927- 1966- ish).
My prime purpose in seeing his original paintings was to check out his actual painting: the brush work, the thickness of the paint, his technique for applying the paint to his canvasses.
As I mentioned in the piece on Frank Frazetta, Frank used very thin layers of oil paint which dried quickly and allowed him to make his deadlines and still deliver a fine oil painting.
Rockwell doesn't do this. He paints like the old masters he so admired. He uses gobs of paint a la Rembrandt to build up texture when he needs to, and thin coats when he needs to use the canvas itself as part of the color or texture statement, as in this picture, Let Nothing You Dismay:
In person, the technique involved in painting the texture of the rug is probably the most incredible in the picture. Echoing Vermeer, Rockwell is able to really suggest the weave of that rug.
Like Maxfield Parrish, Rockwell is at his best with a straightforward composition where everything is a series of parallels. Here's another tour-de-force of technique from the 1960's:
The figure is featured in some of the other versions as is a younger figure, maybe a kid. It's a real insight into Rockwell's sense of his work. The final picture here is perfect. We see the work of art, we read it as a Jackson Pollack, we read the viewer as a person with a different background because of the details: the clothes, the hat, the umbrella, the gloves, the little peak at the program, the impeccable tailoring of the suit, even the haircut. Was there ever such a person? Mr. Drysdale from the Beverly Hillbillies? (Lots of movie and TV iconography came from Rockwell illustrations.)
The caption next to the painting quotes Mr. Speilberg to the effect that Rockwell saw his moment passing- the old guard givers way to the new. Of course the Pollack part (keeping in mind that it is another Rockwell) is as dated as Rockwell part. Maybe more, as it invokes a much shorter period of time in American cultural history than Norman Rockwell's work.
Of course, Speilberg and Lucas, two directors who, in my opinion, make instantly out-of-date movies, constantly try to put their stamp on this work. They really don't get it. Their work is trite. This work is profound. What was once viewed as "mere" illustration has now become Art with a capitol "A", much like N. C. Wyeth. The emotional impact of a good Norman Rockwell is not diminished by its accessibility, it is enhanced by that accessibility.
Take a look at this one:
Another aspect of the show are the cartoons (in the classical sense) of the final paintings. Here's Miss Jones again:
Sometimes the whole thing is perfect:
This painting captures a resonance for me, a time of building a pinewood car with my dad or sewing patches with my mom. A moment when my childhood seemed almost normal.
There are flaws to Norman's work. For instance, his perspective is really strange. Maybe it's because he worked with so many photographs and therefore replicated different lens' focal lengths, or maybe he just took extraordinary artistic licence. Whatever the reason, once he deviates from his parallel line obsession, he seems lost. This illustration from Little Women, for instance. The figure seems to float above the sofa, which itself seems unconnected under the figure.
Again, perfect pencil technique, great moment, etc, but my eye tells me these people are getting squeezed like accordion pleats in that seat. Interestingly, Rockwell glued a piece of paper to the head of the soldier, a common way for illustrators to mask a mistake without trashing the whole piece.
This is a great show, highly entertaining, truly wonderful. Please go see it, despite the comments of the paintings' owners. At least they bought these works instead of the works of, say, Margaret Keane.
Ultimately, Rockwell himself became a Norman Rockwell, so synonymous was he to his Art. Here's his sweet homage to himself, Rembrandt, Vermeer (The Art of Painting), Van Gogh, Picasso and others.