I was looking at the shelves above my desk yesterday and spotted two books of Norman Rockwell paintings that I haven’t looked at in some time. It made me realize that I’ve barely mentioned Norman Rockwell here on the blog which seems all too fitting– his work was so consistently brilliant and ubiquitous that it is often easy to overlook him. Or downplay his talent, as it was such a common thing to do among critics, especially in the 70’s and 80’s when Rockwell was definitely not cool in any sense of the word.
The critics of that time saw his work as often being overly sentimental and trite, a painter of an idealized American dream that didn’t deal with the quickly changing world. But that was merely the result of Rockwell meeting (and exceeding) the requirements of the multitude of illustration assignments he received throughout his career. He painted to meet the desires of his clients and they wanted narrative images that were immediate and deep in their meaning, images that were not ambiguous in any sense.
Which is exactly what they got along with a magnificent chronicle of the last century. Along with some incredibly beautiful painting, work that elevated these images from simple illustration to grand art.
I love the immediacy of Rockwell’s work, the fact that you are easily swept into the narrative that he creates. It is instantly accessible and speaks in a universal language of emotion. But it’s the color of his work, the darks and lights and the way in which he handles them and places them within the compositions, that moves me. They are something out of a rich and pure dream, colors that give me a deeply felt satisfaction. I certainly don’t paint in any way like Norman Rockwell but I still long for his colors.
I remember seeing his scene of a farm family during a visit from the vet who is checking out the young daughter’s calf , shown below. The painting was hanging at our local museum as part of a traveling exhibit and from a distance it was instantly recognizable as Rockwell’s work. Tight and illustrative. But as you came closer, you could see the beautiful marks, loose paint strokes that made up the ground on which they were standing. It was just a wonder to see how he was able to put the piece together and have it read as it did. It really made me more appreciate his work.
Rockwell’s life (1894-1978) and long career spanned perhaps of the great periods of change in the history of our world. He captured us at our best and at our worst, with images that were often poignant as well as humorous. We are so fortunate to have had such a masterful eye keeping tabs on us. Looking at his images, there are literally hundreds that I could have used for this little post. I’m sure most of you will have images of his in your head that will immediately come forward. It is a most remarkable body of work, one that inspires awe from my perspective as an artist. I’m sorry it took so long to acknowledge your brilliance, Mr. Rockwell.