Selling Norman Rockwell
Walking through the exhibition of paintings by the celebrated illustrator Norman Rockwell at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art,1 one does not know whether to laugh or cry.
The exhibit consists of some 70 paintings, several drawings, and a complete set of the more than 300 Saturday Evening Post covers for which most of the paintings were made. Leaving the Post in 1963 after an association of nearly a half-century, Rockwell then produced covers for Look for the next ten years, and some of the paintings for these are included as well. So, too, are a few of the illustrations he did for Boy’s Life, the official publication of the Boy Scouts, where he landed the job of art director when still in his teens.
Born in 1894 in New York City, Rockwell knew from an early age that he wanted to be an illustrator. He dropped out of school at fifteen to study at the National Academy of Design and later at the Art Students League in New York. He received his first commission—four Christmas cards—before his sixteenth birthday, and found success freelancing for a variety of publications for young people. At the age of twenty-one he moved to New Rochelle, New York, set up a studio with a cartoonist named Clyde Forsythe, and produced work for Life, Literary Digest, and Country Gentleman. He would later settle in Vermont and, finally and most famously, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, now home of the Norman Rockwell Museum, one of the cosponsors of the current show.
Rockwell’s first Saturday Evening Post cover was published in 1916, when he was twenty-two. As the press release for the Corcoran exhibit puts it, winning a commission from the Post was “considered to be the pinnacle of achievement for an illustrator.” Having reached the summit so quickly, Rockwell just as quickly figured out how to stay there: he came up with a formula for creating illustrations that remained largely unchanged until his death in 1978 at the age of eighty-four.
That formula can best be described as a pictorial equivalent, or analogue, of the kind of story-telling perfected by the Reader’s Digest, which was finding its own recipe for extraordinary popular and financial success around the same time as Rockwell. The essence of the formula was to create a narrative image (or, in the case of the Digest, a style of writing) that joined a plethora of “realistic” factual detail to a sensibility that insisted that no matter what happened, all remained right with the world, and especially with the people in it. As Rockwell himself described it, “The view of life I communicate in my pictures excludes the sordid and ugly. I paint life as I would like it to be.”
As it happens, his desire to depict this fantasy view of life in America dovetailed with a keen appreciation of the need, for marketing purposes, to find the lowest common denominator. “One of the most difficult problems in painting magazine covers,” he wrote,
is thinking up ideas which a majority of the readers will understand. The farmer worries about the price of milk; the housewife fusses over the drapes for the dining room; the gossip gossips about Mrs. Purdy and her highfalutin’ airs. You have to think of an idea which will mean something to all of them. And it’s darned hard to be universal. . . .
What Rockwell painted, of course, was not “ideas” in any strict sense but rather folksy situations that partook of minor melodrama, superficial sentiment, and humor, sometimes touched with the gentlest irony. “The commonplaces of America are to me the richest subjects in art,” he said. “Commonplaces never become tiresome. It is we who become tired when we cease to be curious and appreciative.”
This may sound unexceptionable, but the truth is that, having adopted an absolutely rigid process for making pictures—involving preliminary sketches that required the approval of his editors, the extensive use of props, models, and costumes, and lengthy photographic sessions—Rockwell ruled out, from the very beginning, any possibility of exercising real artistic curiosity or developing whatever powers of appreciation he might have had. The chief impression given by his illustrations (as by his words) is one of homespun complacency.
A good example is the cutely pretentious Triple Self-Portrait, which shows from behind a seated and slightly goofy-looking Rockwell, painting a huge image of his own head while looking at himself in a large mirror; tacked to the canvas he is working on, as if for the sake of a coy comparison, are small pictures of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and a “Picasso-esque” figure. Goofiness of the endearing kind is, indeed, a recurring trait in Rockwell’s characters, who also display other endearing qualities: kindness, concern, compassion, wonder, interest, highspiritedness, earnestness, piety, thought-fulness, courage, exasperation, pride, seriousness, decency, annoyance, pleasure, exhaustion, feigned puzzlement, surprise, helpfulness, curiosity, industriousness, worry, diligence, gratitude, hopefulness, etc.
Depicting such easily recognizable traits or moods is one of the things that illustrators must be able to do, and Rockwell did it better than his contemporaries; but it is also just about all he did. That he worked very hard to perfect his skills and surpass the competition in no way alters the fact that his images were meant to appeal to readers of the Post in the same way that, say, greeting cards appeal, or the characters in certain types of children’s books. They were supposed to make people feel good about themselves and others.
That is, no doubt, what they did when they appeared as magazine covers. But Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People is not presented as an exhibit of the work of a technically gifted illustrator. Rather, it is presented, and has been received by many critics, as the discovery of a previously unrecognized artist of great, if not clearly specified, significance. According to one of the boosters of the Corcoran show, Rockwell may very well rank as the “most skillful portraitist painting in America in the 20th century.”
Now, even taking into account the hyperbolic rhetoric routinely used these days to describe the work of artists (and filmmakers, novelists, etc.), as well as the relative dearth of great American painters, portrait or otherwise, in the century just passed, that is quite a claim. It would, I am sure, be hotly contested by, for example, admirers of Fairfield Porter, a serious representational painter whose stock has been rising in the art world since his death in 1975. But the claim for Rockwell makes little sense in any case, for he did not really paint portraits. Pictures of people, yes, but not portraits in the sense that the term is usually understood. When you paint a portrait, Henri Matisse said, you must try to put in both the rain and the sunshine—in other words, the fullest truth about the subject being portrayed. But as Rockwell himself made clear, truth, let alone of the fullest kind, was not what he was after.
Among the other grandiose claims that have been entered for Rockwell as an important and vastly underappreciated artist, one is that we should consider him in the same way we consider the 19th-century French artist Honoré Daumier, who, after all, it is said, likewise worked as an illustrator (and a political cartoonist). But the two have nothing very meaningful in common.2
Daumier—who worked largely from memory—exemplified the spirit of modern drawing, helping to invent the medium as an art form in its own right. That spirit was well expressed by Eugene Delacroix, who once remarked to a student that if he wanted to be a painter, he should be able to draw a picture of a man falling from a building before he hit the ground. What Delacroix meant was that the artist had to be able to re-create, in the act of drawing or painting, the experience of the thing observed, the sensation of what it was doing (as opposed simply to what it looked like). This was accomplished by seeking to capture not every detail but the essential movement of the scene, figure, or object—its gesture, to use the technical term. To the extent the artist succeeded, his work would come alive on the paper or canvas, and a viewer would respond by recognizing in himself the feeling of the experience so rendered.
Many of Daumier’s cartoons never rise to this level because they were done to make a social or political point and are not realized artistically. But his best drawings, paintings, and sculptures do rise to the level of art, even great art, because they convey truths about experience that continue to interest and preoccupy us. What is most remarkable about Daumier’s accomplishment—especially evident in the series of busts he did of prominent figures of his day—is that it was the result of a truly original and powerful understanding of the formal possibilities of caricature.
Rockwell, too, was a caricaturist, but of a very different kind, as the paintings at the Corcoran make painfully clear. His laboriously wrought figures, no less than the multitude of objects that surround them, feel completely artificial, frozen, ultimately lifeless. They resemble, more than anything else, dolls that have been crafted to look “real.” They do not breathe, and they contain no hint of actual personality or character. And the reason is clear: these paintings were tailored to the exigencies not of art but of photomechanical reproduction.
On one or two occasions, Rockwell does achieve, if only in comparison to his own work, a somewhat arresting quality of light or a trompe I’oeil effect, but this result seems to have no relation to the composition as a whole, or to its comfortable message of tolerance and human goodness. As for the vast majority of the works on display, in their use of color and design they are weirdly nondescript. Some, like The Discovery, are garish; some, like Tom Sawyer (Whitewashing the Fence), which reduces a great character from American literature to clownish innocence, falsify their subject in a truly offensive way; and some are downright repulsive—one in particular, Christmas Homecoming, seems a precursor of the kind of domestic scene one would later find satirized in Mad magazine. This is a long way from Daumier.
It is an even longer way from Vermeer, who is the subject of certainly the most farfetched claim made on Rockwell’s behalf. The idea that he is the American version of the 17th-century Dutch master is apparently based on the fact that Rockwell studied Renaissance painting and tried to apply its use of perspective. But studying a master is not the same as becoming one, and none of the strained argument in support of this outlandish comparison will persuade anyone who has ever actually looked at a Vermeer.
What purposes, then, are being served by such claims? Crass as it may be to say so, “authoritative” statements of this kind by critics and art historians help to move the merchandise. At the Corcoran show, matters are so arranged that as you exit the last room you immediately enter a kind of bazaar—a room bathed in white light and filled with shelves displaying memorabilia of every conceivable sort, from T-shirts to picture frames, coffee mugs, books, puzzles, postcards, dolls, games, toys, and so on. Identified by a huge sign on the wall above the cash registers as “The Norman Rockwell Store,” this place, with its unholy holy light, seems both continuous with the viewing experience one has just gone through and a perfect conclusion to it: a kind of commercial canonization of a museum-certified commercial artist.
The placing of such gift shops within galleries—rather than in a separate part of the museum building—is apparently a trend, one that testifies to the accelerating conflation of artistic and commercial values and the concomitant abandonment of the most basic discriminations, including the discrimination between bad and good art, or between art and illustration. This process has been under way at least since the pop-art explosion of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Indeed, more than a few commentators have drawn attention to the supposed affinities between Rockwell and Andy Warhol, who also began his career as a commercial artist. And the fact that Warhol reputedly admired Rockwell’s work is now cited as proof of the latter’s artistic merit—the question of Warhol’s own merit, like that of pop art as a whole, having long ago been resolved in his, and its, favor.
In accordance with the new and greatly relaxed standards for assigning aesthetic value, one major museum after another has lately been mounting exhibitions in which what can only be described as schlock is hung next to works of genuine achievement, creating an egalitarian stew that must add to the confusion that now seems to reside in the minds of curators and viewers alike. In reviewing one such exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum, 1900: Art at the Crossroads, the art critic Hilton Kramer wrote:
[In this exhibition] we are earnestly invited to observe the “unexpected affinities” that are alleged to unite the philistine painters and sculptors of the Academy and their modernist opponents in some grand common purpose. As is usually the case, . . . the “unexpected affinities” are all based on subject matter and thematic motifs . . . rather than on the formal and aesthetic character of the paintings and sculptures that are falsely linked by incongruous juxtaposition. . . . Unfortunately, there is such a huge quantity of academic junk in the show that it tends to overwhelm and demoralize the visitor as only large doses of inferior art can do.
By coincidence, Robert Rosenblum, the curator of the exhibit described by Kramer, is also one of the contributors to the catalogue for the Corcoran show. This is what he has to say there about his revelatory visit to the Norman Rockwell Museum in 1993:
Inside, without the distractions of modern art, I became an instant convert . . . wondering how anybody but the most bigoted modernist could resist not only the mimetic magic of these paintings, but the no less magical way they transformed a mind-boggling abundance of tiny observations . . . into essential props for the story told. . . . Now that the battle for modern art has ended in a triumph that took place in another century, the 20th, Rockwell’s work may become an indispensable part of art history. 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.
There is a note of belligerence, and of defensiveness, in these words: in their implication that modernism—the 20th century’s great artistic achievement—can now be consigned to the historical dustbin and in the slightly ominous suggestion that, as far as art appreciation and the Rockwell show go, we should just “get over it.” Another booster of Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People made the essential point much more directly when he advised visitors that “to see these paintings may require a degree of brain suspension.” No one could put it more plainly than that.
1 The exhibit runs through September 24. It will be at the Guggenheim Museum in New York from November 7 to February 11, 2001, having previously traveled to Atlanta, Chicago, San Diego, Phoenix, and Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
2 The differences between them were, by coincidence, sharply highlighted by a marvelous exhibition of Daumier’s works that was on view at the Phillips Collection in Washington from February 19 to May 14 of this year.