Looking at Norman Rockwell

by Gregg Kreutz
November 15, 2001-March 3, 2002

I really liked the Norman Rockwell show. It's been going around the country for a year or so now, playing to sellout crowds and it is now finishing up its tour at, of all places, the Guggenheim Museum. I happened to catch up with it last spring in Phoenix, Arizona and, as I say, I really liked it.

Until recently, saying you even slightly liked anything by Norman Rockwell was to declare yourself seriously uncultured. The powers that be had placed Norman Rockwell somewhere between middle class and hayseed, and the idea of him being taken seriously as an artist was thought of as pretty much laughable.

"Real art," ran the argument that propped up this position, "unlike what Norman Rockwell does, is edgy. Real art pushes the envelope. Real art is difficult." In our time this kind of thinking has become accepted wisdom. We've come to think of art almost by definition as going against the grain. But in fact, art, for most of our cultural history, has been aggressively pro status quo. Mainstream religions have always used artists to give their ideas visual weight and authority. And, of course, the ruling classes, since time immemorial, have exploited artists' abilities to make them not look like decadent morons. Van Dyke, for example, in his day, was justly admired for his skill at finding grace and charm in syphilitic burn-outs. And it is often seen as a measure of Velazquez's greatness that he could paint beautiful paintings of a subject (King Philip IV of Spain) who many feel would be the frontrunner in an ugliest monarch of all time competition.

Part of the excitement of modernism was its rejection of that kind of kowtowing. And with throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bath-water revolutionary zeal, modernism also rejected all the other conventions of high art. Accurate drawing, sensitive color, perspective—modernism tossed all these skills out the window. In effect modernism was anti-skill. The power of this negation was so exciting and the underlying message so compelling that for most of the past century, artists who painted in anything like a conventionally realistic style—in terms of relevance—might as well have been wearing powdered wigs. The only painters who were allowed to paint realistically during this time were illustrators. They got away with it because (a) the general public still liked realism and (b) illustration"wasn't really art."

Is what Norman Rockwell did art? As I say, it shouldn't be disqualified because it is accessible or politically middle of the road. Art has often been that. Nor, obviously should its realism be held against it. Where I think it differs from at least great art—like say the kind of great art that Rembrandt did—is how Rockwell used his paint. For Rockwell, the paint was a means to an end. The point of his paintings was the story being told, and paint and canvas were only important to the extent that they helped that story. Because his focus was so much on the narrative content of his pictures, he kept his role in the proceedings anonymous and distant. Of the great illustrators during the last century—Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Dean Cornwell, J.C. Leyendecker—Norman Rockwell was the most impersonal in terms of style and the most personal in terms of content. Other illustrators displayed more flair and painterly excitement in their work, but this painterliness was generally in the service of exotic, highly romanticized scenes. Norman Rockwell depicted the mundane and the familiar and found within them compelling emotional truths. Presumably he didn't want to distract the viewer with bravura, and so he never became anything like an alia prima painter.

His painting process, in fact, belonged to the outline school of depiction. He painted from the outside in. He would meticulously figure out the perimeters of his figures, trace these perimeters onto the canvas with charcoal and then fill in the color. The fact that he was a terrific drafts-man and a wonderful colorist only meant that his story ideas were brilliantly out-lined and colored, but they never really became painterly paintings. Rembrandt, on the other hand, didn't use paint to tell stories, he used stories to move around paint. The emphasis was reversed. Abstract movement of texture and color, for Rembrandt, was as much the subject of the painting as the content. In his greatest works, like his late self-portraits, the con-tent and the form are united.
Norman Rockwell then, in my view, skillful though he is, isn't a painter in the same sense that Rembrandt, Velazquez, and say Inness are painters. He's not interested enough in painterly effects. Beautiful, expressive strokes, lost edges, delicate accents, none of these play much of a role in a Norman Rockwell painting. Narrative idea is the overriding action. And it's ultimately on that basis that he needs to be evaluated.

The majority of Norman Rockwell's paintings are not illustrations in the ordinary sense. They are not illustrating a text. They are self-contained stories that don't depend on external narrative to make them coherent. Their humor, their pathos, their humanity are all vividly presented right inside the picture plane, and the emotional clout of these pictures arises from a sense of detail and characterization so complete and convincing that they rival anything Hollywood did over the same period. The family excitedly heading off for their family vacation and then wearily returning, the girl with the black eye sit-ting in front of the principal's office, the African-American girl being escorted to school, these pictures are so brilliantly conceived and so perfectly executed, so humorous and often so touching that they've become national icons. Are they art? Well, if what Frank Capra or John Ford did was art, then of course they are. The twentieth century marked the triumph of popular culture. Movies, jazz, musical comedies, rock and roll. That's where the century's creative energy was most effectively flowing, and it's in that area of art that Norman Rockwell belongs. And in that arena, he was brilliantly successful.

This success, it turns out, was not casually achieved. As I learned from his colorful, well-written autobiography, My Adventures as an Illustrator, Norman Rockwell started out as a highly motivated, highly ambitious young man. Insecure about his frail physical appearance, he saw art as a way to even the odds, and he threw himself into an extended effort to transform himself into one of the country's top illustrators. Where did he go to effect this transformation? What school did he decide would give him the best training possible? Why the Art Students League of course. Eager to be challenged as much as possible, he studied here for two years, and found in his teacher George Bridgman someone who was more than willing to crack the whip. I'll conclude here with a quote I liked from the autobiography.
Sometimes as he went from student to student Mr. Bridgeman [sic] would stop suddenly in the midst of a comment and, raising his voice, say, "You know, boys, a queer thing happened to me after I left the class last Tuesday. There was a coal wagon backed up onto the sidewalk on Forty-eighth Street shooting coal into a cellar. As I passed by a fellow stuck his head, all begrimed with coal, out of the cellar and said, 'Hello, Mr. Bridgeman.' I said, 'Why, hello there, who are you?' 'Oh,' the fellow said, 'don't you remember me, Mr. Bridgeman? I was number 1 in your class all last year." Then Mr. Bridgeman would lower his voice and go right on with his comment to the student whose drawing he had been criticizing.

The story varied; sometimes it was an iceman or a voice from a manhole. The results, however, were invariable—the Sistine chapels, the Last Suppers we had just, in imagination, been commissioned to paint, crumbled and we were art students again, art students who had better stop imagining triumph and work harder. Still, Mr. Bridgeman told that story in such a way that every one of us thought, He doesn't mean me, not if I work hard anyway.

1. Norman Rockwell: My Adventures as an Illustrator. (New York: Ballantine, 1972), 68-69.