Even in a modern time where identities and definitions are rapidly changing, the iconic American scenes depicted in Norman Rockwell’s illustrations capture a timeless innocence and unabashed part of our country’s character. The artist’s work covered the Saturday Evening Post for decades as prices increased, fonts changed, and good and bad times came and went. Throughout his work with the publication, Rockwell’s numerous depictions of charming everyday America undoubtedly shaped how we are viewed and how we view ourselves.
In his lifetime, Rockwell produced over 4,000 original pieces as the nation’s premier illustrator.
American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell was featured at the North Carolina Museum of Art just in time for the holiday season, allowing visitors to reexamine American ideals with the lens of the 21st century. The exhibit featured a vast array of the artist’s work spanning over six decades. American Chronicles includes 40 original works of art and a complete set of 323 Saturday Evening Post cover tear sheets, spanning 47 years.
In the main room of the exhibit, copies of the Saturday Evening Post lined every wall in simple wooden frames. Many still had mailing addresses from across the country stuck somewhere noninvasively. When faced with that many weekly issues, one really gets a scope of just how many covers Rockwell had to churn out in his time.
The exhibit also made it known that Rockwell was not always the well-known, respected artist he is today. Many critics loathed his sense of idealistic, sentimental America, calling his work bourgeois. Some refused to call it art, saying his technique was put to banal use. In his later years, however, Rockwell received much acclaim, and recently art critic Peter Schjeldahl said of Rockwell in ArtNews: “Rockwell is terrific. It’s become too tedious to pretend he isn’t.” Rockwell’s ironic work Art Critic showcases his humor toward the initial dismissal of his work.
As the years of issues cycle through in rows on the wall, Christmas covers come and go (some more celebrated than others), war-themed covers reappear, and during the Depression, illustrations were more simplistic. One thing that remained was the relatable, humble tone of Rockwell’s work. He wasn’t trying to appeal to one group above another. He was not trying to make America into some superficial idea. His work was about the traditions and the people carrying them out.
One of the more famous series is the Four Freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Certainly these ideals still manifest themselves in today’s culture; another running theme of Rockwell’s work also found in the past and present America is that of advertising. Much of Rockwell’s work was used in marketing different products. From toothpaste to cereal to war bonds, marketers knew they had a potential goldmine on their hands when it came to Rockwell’s classic illustrations. They appealed to many and made strong statements with memorable images. Along with tens of thousands of other eager, patriotic citizens, President Roosevelt also thanked the artist for his work. Rockwell also did many illustrations for Boy’s Life magazine and other affiliations with the Boy Scouts of America.
Some of my personal favorites from the collection on display were of the process itself. To the untrained eye, Rockwell rarely placed himself in his work, but with a careful reexamination, his likeness can be found in many of his illustrations. Less inconspicuously, the artist painted himself working on a self-portrait cover of the Saturday Evening Post while looking at himself in the mirror. Triple Self Portrait remains a well-recognized work and has been highly discussed. The painting references the greats: Durer, Rembrandt, van Gogh, and Picasso.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibit, there were a few things unconsidered. The crowds were much too large the day I visited, and many of the visitors were elderly and handicapped. Meandering through the exhibit was a little difficult. For some reason, the North Carolina Museum of Art also deemed all sketching and photography outlawed. Maybe it’s just me, but any museum directly inhibiting the creation of art just seems bizarre.
American Chronicles will travel to 12 national venues through 2013.