Rockwell on Main Street

Where Was Norman?

Wasn’t there a revolution going on in the art world in his time?  What about abstract art,  Cubism, Surrealism?


Piet Mondrian, Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red, 1937–42, oil on canvas, 72.5 × 69 cm, Tate Gallery. London

Those started in Europe and hadn’t yet reached “middle” America.

America participated in the wars fought in Europe but it did not take part  in the revolution of ideas or values. On the contrary, it became more and more preoccupied with its purpose in the cause and progress of civilization.


Norman Rockwell Freedom of Speech, 1942

It considered itself “blessed” and happy.  Never much given to philosophical reflection, now it considered the value question closed and it set about work on improving the material aspects of the great country. It needed an artist to decorate that busy enterprise.

Where was the Audience?

Europe’s new art had become its own aim, its own reason for being and, in a way, its own critic. It had less and less to do with the viewer.  It even seemed to snob him. Most people could not get any pleasure out of it.


The Connoiseur by Norman Rockwell, 1962

Yet they wanted homey decoration, they still needed art that would speak directly to them.

See Main Street !

Rockwell was their man, their jinni. He wasn’t afflicted with agonizing doubts about art’s presentability or adequacy or good health.  He set right to work. He was, after all, a jinni not from a bottle but from Main Street. He was “one of us”.
If a boy told you he wanted to be an artist, he was thinking of Norman Rockwell. Who wouldn’t like to paint like him?


New Player by Norman Rockwell

Few painters were ever as gifted.  His colors, his clarity, his composition, his drawing—they were all supreme. But he was no philosopher—he was rather a psychologist. He took for granted the common morality of his time.  He was American the way Livy was Roman or Churchill was British. The older he got the more he contributed to the great social and political issues of his time.


The Problem We All Live with, 1935 by Norman Rockwell

See the Story !

Rockwell never wanted comparison with the revolutionaries in art.  “I’m an illustrator,” he said, “not an artist.”  But while most illustrators don’t invent the story they illustrate, Rockwell painted his own stories. Every detail of his picture was like the carefully chosen paragraph of a narrative. Because of the viewer’s familiarity with the objects of the painting, and their realism and appropriateness everywhere, he “saw” the story as though he were a witness to it.

Rockwell wasn’t the first to do this. In great museums there are many paintings that tell their own story and make some comment on the customs or morality of their time. This one by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805) hangs in the Louvre.  It is called The Village Marriage.


The Village Marriage, 1761, by Jean Baptiste Greuze

The wedding takes place at the village notary’s office. A very young couple have decided to marry, perhaps feeling obliged by the girl’s pregnancy. Both their families are present and each of the members can be identified by their gestures and their proximity to their children. The lovers are much too young to begin their own life. The boy’s anguished father tries to convince him of the foolishness of what he is about to do.  The girl, suffering from all the disapproval, gropes for the hand of her lover for support.  She comes from a big family. Perhaps her parents offer less resistance to the proposal because of all the other mouths to feed.

The painter’s fine characterization, as well as his dramatist’s sense of tension, make this an exceptional piece of “illustration”.

Rockwell’s humor

Maybe no narrator-painter has made humor such an important ingredient of his stories. Even serious themes Rockwell presents in an atmosphere of humorous contradiction. A viewer smiles at nearly all his paintings.  Humor is Rockwell’s hallmark and it is also Uncle Sam’s.  Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, James Thurber, for example:  Americans say things with a wink.

But the humor of Rockwell’s anecdotes is what, to many, disqualifies him as a serious artist. Humor was never considered the best “atmosphere” for art, which requires concentration, reflection, abstraction in the original sense. “An artist,” some would say, “does not bind himself so closely to a time, a place, and a mentality. There is too much matter-of-fact absorption with material detail in Rockwell’s world. He is like an eagle who only hops on the ground. Shouldn’t an eagle soar?”

Missing from battle?

And others might object to Rockwell’s complacency at a time when other artists were struggling with a new conception of art. To many, even in America, the traditional forms of art seemed inadequate. It was no longer considered enough for an artist to become skilled in the old techniques and to illustrate the traditional themes. Now he had to find new subject matter: he had to find a new aim, he had to decide on the very point of his work. He could take nothing for granted. Every one of his paintings was an experiment, a jump into the void. He could no longer count on his viewer to follow him, to understand. Artists spent their lives in this mostly fruitless search.

“But that was not my battle,” Rockwell might have replied. “I knew from the start what I wanted and I worked hard all my life to get it. I was one with my audience and I painted for us. Put me in the category that you want.”


Self-portrait by Norman Rockwell


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5 Responses to Rockwell on Main Street

  1. ivdanu says:

    I’m still liking Delacroix’s “definition” of a good painting which should be a “feast for the eye”. It’s a very simple and effective definition and it works tremendously well for me. If my eye doesn’t “feast” on an image I just let it be. It works well for Rockwell too since his images are, really, feasts for the eyes. Instead, Mondrian & comp bore the hell out of me and my eyes… For me, Rockwell is an interesting artist, a joyful artist, an excellent story teller, as you so well underlined.
    And, knowing you a bit, 100swallows, you are too, a storyteller with words but also with your brush… And I also don’t give a damn about new in art art and, specifically, in painting. There is no new, there is only good painting and bad, morn, uninteresting, “intellectual” painting… I prefer 100 x Rockwell to stuckup, aride and conceptual painters like Mondrian, no matter what the self-appointed guru of art history are saying…

    • 100swallows says:

      Danu: You and Will and Ken have all mentioned Delacroix’s journals and I finally ordered a copy. Just paging through, I’ve seen good things, like the entry Ken quotes in his latest post.

      I didn’t know that “feast for the eyes” came from Delacroix. Renoir quoted it. It is catchy. Of course “one man’s meat is another man’s poison” and it would be hard to get people to agree on what makes their eyes hungry. I agree that “art” often went too intellectual or conceptual and, when confronted with it in a gallery or museum, just like you, I can’t even stop long enough to take a bite, so unappetizing does it look.

      There’s something about your “joyful” too. The best art has that quality, even when the subject is sad. “This is what I love,” says the artist. “I have been working my whole life to show you.”

  2. will says:

    Once again, I have learnt a lot with your post, Swallows. I barely knew the name Rockwell and that was all. I am pleased to discover this artist thanks to your blog. I realized what I was missing with my ignorance about this artist. I share the view that the lower consideration in which ‘illustrators’ compared to ‘painters’ are held is unfair, and sometimes utterly wrong. A case which comes to my mind is Honoré Daumier. To me, he was one of the greatest draughtsmen, and much more than that. He has long been confined in France to the second rank of ‘illustrator’ or even ‘cartoonist’ and did not enjoy the success he deserved during his lifetime. Hopefully this has been changing for some decades. His power of expression is stunning, his independence from any formatted style and the story telling that shows in any of his works are the hallmarks of a major artist.
    Going along this line, Toulouse-Lautrec has taught us so brilliantly how wrong it is to look down at illustrators since some can turn, like him, into art genius.
    Best Wishes for the New Year.

  3. Ken Januski says:

    I’d like to add one other artist to those mentioned here, Stuart Davis, one of my favorite American artists for many years. He’s more in the Mondrian camp than the illustrator camp of Rockwell and Toulouse-Lautrec/Daumier. But I like him because he’s a full blooded American, born right here in Philadelphia and so makes maybe a better counterpoint to his fellow American, Norman Rockwell.

    My surprising and immediate reaction in seeing this post was how much more I liked the Mondrian, even though I’ve commented about all of Rockwell’s good qualities in the last post. Maybe it’s like a first love, or a visit to the landscape in which you grew up. As soon as you’re reminded of it a very fond feeling wells up. That certainly was my reaction to seeing the Mondrian, though I’d hate to have to explain what it is I like so much in him.

    I guess I’m just saying that I think Mondrian and Rockwell aren’t antagonists. They both add something very worthwhile to human culture. Some will see nothing in Rockwell; others will see nothing in Mondrian. What’s more interesting to me is what they have in common.

    I think Swallows does a wonderful job of explaining all that so many people saw in Rockwell. If only Mondrian and others had such a down to earth apologist instead of the jargon ridden theoreticians of contemporary art who may actually drive more people away than the art itself. New art of course always takes awhile to go from appealing to a more perceptive audience to a more general one. If you need evidence of that read about the reaction to the Impressionists and then go look at the crowds in the Impressionist room of any museum. It will probably be fuller than any other room. What was once revolutionary and beyond the pale, is now the most loved, comfy art in the world.

    There have been times I’ve seen this in my own work where for audiences the more jazzy feeling of some work is far more appealing than straightforward realism. For some audiences today realism is comfy; for others some sort of designy abstraction is more comfy, more what they think art should be. That just seems to be the way that art is appreciated by various people.

    I sometimes fear that ‘ironic’ art ala Warhol, Duchamp and others has become the comfy art for many of the more educated populace. Irony is expected in art, just as realism once was, even the sometimes hokey realism of Rockwell. Given the choice I prefer Rockwell.

    P.S. There is a new book out on Rockwell. I had to chance to see the author of it speak here recently but missed it. Now I wish I hadn’t. It would be interesting to know more about Rockwell’s life.

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