Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People
Nov. 6-Jan. 30 High Museum of Art
1280 Peachtree St., Atlanta, Ga.
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.-Wed.; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thurs.-Fri.
$13 weekdays/$15 weekends adults; $10/$12 seniors, college students, and children ages 6-17. Tickets are for specific dates, available by calling (404) 733-5000 or by visiting www.high.org.
More than with any other artist, Americans feel at home with Norman Rockwell. We’ve grown up seeing reproductions of his works hanging in our doctors’ offices or looking back at us from calendars sent by our insurance companies at Christmas. The images he created of a carefree, uncomplicated America are so familiar they hang in our minds more as beloved personal memories than as art.
If the public has embraced Rockwell’s images as its own, however, art critics have lagged far behind in their opinion of him as a serious artist. As the century that Rockwell sought to capture prepares to turn, however, even those who have dismissed him in the past are beginning to re-examine his work. The High Museum of Art’s ambitious exhibition of 70 original Rockwell oil paintings and all 322 Rockwell covers for The Saturday Evening Post, a joint project with the Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts, marks the high point in the turning tide of that artistic reassessment. Filled with examples of Rockwell’s Christmas and Thanksgiving paintings, his charming and often humorous vignettes of small-town America, and his portraits of great Americans like Abraham Lincoln, the show also represents a perfect exhibition for the current holiday season.
Like the overwhelming majority of Americans, Anne Knutson, guest curator for the Atlanta museum’s Rockwell show, had never seen Rockwell’s original paintings, only their reproductions as magazine covers. “The paintings blew me away,” she admits. “They are very tactile, with the paint built up for a three-dimensional effect. Rockwell even rubbed sand, dirt, and hair into the paint for texture.” The curator also points out that Rockwell used classic painting conventions in his works. “ ‘New Television Antenna,’ for example, reflects the same sort of pyramidal composition seen in traditional religious paintings from the Renaissance to the Baroque period,” she says.
But Rockwell’s painterly style and technical mastery have never been the reasons for his popularity. “For over 75 years, Rockwell captured and sustained the imaginations of Americans,” says Knutson. “The most interesting question to me about Rockwell is, ‘how did he do it?’ ”
The exhibition attempts to answer that question by organizing the artist’s works into four thematic groups. Each explores how Rockwell’s images gave Americans a visual means of describing and celebrating their lives and their country in the 20th century.
In the section called “Inventing America,” viewers can study works that show an America in transition from a mostly rural country to an urban one united by technology. Whether they concerned the movies, the new phenomenon called television, or the proliferation of automobiles and highways, Rockwell’s images made viewers feel as if the artist were painting their own personal story. The 1949 painting “New Television Antenna,” for example, shows a workman installing an antenna atop a Victorian house, while the proud owner of the new television looks up from an attic window at the proceedings. Many who saw the image at the time felt the artist had used their hometown as a model.
“One of the keys to Rockwell’s success was that he suppressed any significant signs of class, regional, or social background in his works, so that people from everywhere identified with them,” says Knutson. “ ‘New Television Antenna’ was actually painted in Los Angeles. But Rockwell got letters from all over the country saying that the image came right out of their own backyards.”
Rockwell’s holiday images also helped create a unified vision of the modern American Christmas, one filled with cozy hearths, Dickensian carolers, and astonished children uncovering the true identity of Santa Claus. The most famous of these images perhaps is “The Discovery,” found in the section of the exhibition called “Celebrating the Commonplace.” In this 1956 view of an open-mouthed little boy in pajamas discovering a Santa Claus suit and beard at the bottom of his father’s dresser drawer, most Americans see their own eye-opening revelation about Christmas. In this section of the show, viewers also see themselves in such familiar images as “No Swimming,” in which young boys make their getaway from a skinny-dipping session, and “The Babysitter With Screaming Infant,” with a determined-looking young teen twisting her hair and consulting a book on how to deal with the crying baby in her lap.
Paintings in the section called “Drawing on the Past” demonstrate how Rockwell used famous figures and events from American history and literature to create a shared heritage for a nation of immigrants. Included here are “Scouting With Daniel Boone,” “ThanksgivingYe Glutton (Pilgrim in Stockade),” “Tom Sawyer Whitewashing the Fence,” and a handsome young George Washington romancing a young lady in “Forgotten Facts About Washington.”
The show is not all warmhearted humor and nostalgia, however. The section called “Honoring the American Spirit” features works that celebrate America’s patriotic tendencies throughout two world wars and a walk on the moon, but it also includes works that look at the country’s problems. “It surprises a lot of people to see that Rockwell took on hard-hitting issues like school desegregation,” says Knutson, referring to Rockwell’s unforgettable visual walk with a tiny African American schoolgirl as she is escorted by police to her desegregated classroom in the 1964 painting “The Problem We All Live With.”
Even more surprising is a 1965 work called “Southern Justice,” which graphically depicts the murder of civil rights workers in Mississippi. More hopeful is the 1967 work “New Kids in the Neighborhood,” showing black and white children studying each other in a driveway blocked by a moving van. Both groups clutch baseball mitts and are accompanied by their pets. The mood is one of curiosity rather than confrontation, and the viewer gets the feeling a game of catch may ensue. Still, Rockwell leaves tension hanging in the air and asks viewers to consider their own feelings on racism.
Rockwell’s famous suite of paintings called “Four Freedoms,” created during World War II, is also included in this section of the show. Illustrating the rights of free speech and religion, as well as freedom from fear and want, the 1943 images look less like America today than when they were created but still manage to inspire. Rockwell’s 1961 portrait of tolerance called “Golden Rule,” however, seems as current as today’s headlines. Looking at it in 1999, its depiction of people of every color, nationality, and religion standing shoulder to shoulder seems a picture not just for the American people but one of the American people in a way Rockwell probably never envisioned.
Then again, perhaps he did. As the artist himself once said, “I showed the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed it.” That the art world has chosen to notice Norman Rockwell and his images of peace and goodwill on the eve of the 21st century is a sentimental brush stroke worthy of the artist himself.
No pigtails Pink, just pig.
Ms Harris, your belief that only those that do not want to die seek help…
A religious man gives his opinion about the biblical sin of homosexuality and he's labeled…
Finally some truth about polar bears. There's also more of them then ever. They're in…
My neighborhood association in Green Hills has been battling developers who don't care if they…