Painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell (1894 – 1978) left his indelible mark on twentieth-century, American visual culture. His warm, inviting genre scenes could be found in such magazines as Boys’ Life, Popular Science, Life, and most notably, The Saturday Evening Post, for which he published a total of 323 original covers.
Besides commercial commissions, Rockwell produced paintings that reflected contemporary social and political issues. In 1943, Rockwell completed the Four Freedoms, a series of four oil paintings that first appeared in the Post alongside essays by Booth Tarkington, Will Durant, Carlos Bulosan, and Stephen Vincent Benet. These four images would later become a wartime poster campaign, which saw the reproduction of 2.5 million posters, and were the centerpieces for a nationwide war bonds drive that raised roughly $132 million for the war effort. In 1964, Rockwell completed The Problem We All Live With, a now iconic image of the civil rights movement in America that first appeared in Look magazine.
Rockwell has always been a polarizing figure in the art world. In 1939, Clement Greenberg cited Rockwell as the poster child of kitsch in his seminal essay, Avant-Garde and Kitsch. Today, Rockwell continues to be at the center of the debate between high and low art, and what fundamentally constitutes serious art making and discourse. However, art critics and historians have begun to descend from their ivory tower to reconsider Rockwell’s place among the annals of American art.
As a result of the “Rockwell revival” of the 1990s, Rockwell and his works have “reentered” the art world. A touring exhibition, Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, visited such esteemed art institutions as the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City.
The value of his works, as not merely likeable or not, but as worthy of attention, divided art critics. In 2001, Jerry Saltz of the Village Voice, after seeing the exhibition at the Guggenheim, stated that “Loving Rockwell is shunning complexity” and, quite harshly, “…an empty room with piped-in music by Hank Williams and Sonny Boy Williamson…would take you deeper and tell you more about America than this show.” More recently, in 2010, Blake Gopnik of the Washington Post referred to Rockwell’s work as representing “…his trepidatious, homogenized vision of the country.”
Dave Hickey, however, went on to refer to Rockwell as the great narrator of American art, and that “Rockwell’s whole idea of history is very American; it’s based on the promise of youth.” Art critic for the New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl called Rockwell “terrific,” and that “It’s become tedious to pretend he isn’t.” And perhaps the most visible champion of Rockwell in recent times was Robert Rosenblum, contributing editor for ArtForum and the curator of twentieth-century art at the Guggenheim when Picture for the American People was exhibited. Rosenblum, who was the target of much criticism for devoting some of the Guggenheim’s resources to Rockwell’s works, suggested that “We have a newborn Rockwell who can no longer be looked at with sneering condescension and might well become an indispensable part of art history.”
Criticism aside, the success of Pictures for the American People has seen the continuation of the traveling of some of Rockwell’s works. Currently, American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell, organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum, is at the Newark Museum until May 26, 2014. Future locations for the show include the BYU Museum of Art in Provo, Utah and Fondazione Roma, Arte Musei, in Rome. American Chronicles has already visited Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Arkansas, the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, the Akron Art Museum, and the Dayton Art Institute.
As Rockwell’s successful career suggests, along with the ubiquitous nature of his name outside the art world, he has been highly regarded by the American public. Besides positive remarks from well-known art critics and multiple, large, touring exhibitions of his works, his recent success at a Sotheby’s auction hints towards his growing reputation among denizens of the art community. In December, 2013, Saying Grace, 1951, sold for $46 million, breaking his previous record of $15 million in 2006 at a Sotheby’s auction.
Where Rockwell fits into twentieth-century American art is still up for debate. He does not neatly fit into the rubrics of Clement Greenberg, who valued abstraction, form as the basis for quality, and a focus on the inherit qualities of a particular medium, or of Harold Rosenberg, who shifted attention to the process of creating a work of art, and viewed the canvas as a record of an event. These ideas permeate art historical conceptions of modern art to this day, and perhaps say more about how we choose to remember and value art produced from the early twentieth-century onward.
Rockwell’s works reveal more about how Americans envisioned themselves, rather than how Rockwell envisioned them. In his illustrations, he produced what they wanted to see. After all, as many of his works were created as a professional illustrator, they had to meet certain demands of savvy magazine editors that knew what would be successful, and what could potentially create controversy. His works are not “Modern,” but they are “modern.” That is, they do not represent how art historians think of modern art, but they do reflect a particularly modern moment, or moments, in American history. They are significant in terms of their historical context, and what visual art can reveal about a national sense of self. Besides being enjoyable images to look at, they are documents, of sorts, that tell part of the story of American life during the times in which they were produced.
And as Robert Rosenblum has stated, “The sneering, puritanical condescension with which he was once viewed by serious art lovers can swiftly be turned into pleasure. To enjoy his unique genius, all you have to do is relax.”