Norman Rockwell


Shuffleton’s Barbershop

He painted stories

Rockwell was the most outstanding illustrator of his time. He had no equal in the selection of evocative details or the skill at rendering them.    The big broom for sweeping up the hair clippings, the bench for waiting customers, the old stove with its pipe through the room, the little crack in the corner of the window—each of them is a call to the memory of anyone who lived in America at the time.  Each is a shot that goes home.

Sometimes, as he got older, he stood up for national causes:


Homecoming Soldier

The young soldier is home from the war.  He is in uniform, maybe he’s come from a parade or a hometown tribute and has stopped in to see his friends at the neighborhood garage. His picture from the newspaper is up on the wall—he’s a hero.

The handshakes and little welcome jokes are over and his enemy flag trophy has been passed around. Now he has begun to answer their questions and to quietly tell them how it was.  He doesn’t look like a braggart or a teller of tales. With his report he has awed his friends to silence.

The men and the boys are each so familiar and their gestures so “right”  that it might seem you are recalling such a conversation rather than seeing it for the first time. Rockwell’s depiction of the garage is as true as that of his men.  The workbench, the girlie calendar, the tools, the grease marks and other details—they evoke a sort of “ideal” garage, at least the one that existed in the America of the twentieth century.  With a reconstruction of the setting, the men, and the mood Rockwell has as good as told the soldier’s war story.  It is an epic scene.  No one has ever done it better.

America’s painter

There was never a painter who had such a wide, loving, group of viewers. They were the whole of America. His paintings came on the covers of one of the most popular magazines in America for more than a generation. Delivery boys tossed them onto porches from their bikes every month. They lay on coffee tables in homes and doctors’ waiting rooms everywhere. You couldn’t miss them. No paintings were ever looked at and thought about by so many people.

They were full of details so familiar it seemed Rockwell spoke of one’s own family and neighborhood. In fact, he sang the neighborhood well-being and morality of  America. If the aim of an artist is to make people feel at home in their world, he achieved it like no one at the time. While college kids were reading Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, their parents and grandparents were smiling at the covers of  The Saturday Evening Post and feeling that the world, their world, was right and good.
Remember how “we” all used to say grace before meals?


Saying Grace

Even in restaurants and cafeterias people stopped talking when the food was brought, and bowed their heads to pray. But the practice was going out by the time Rockwell recorded it. The young men at the other end of the table are so surprised they can’t keep from staring.  Even the middle-aged man who stands behind them, and the comfortable fellow with his cigar and newspaper, have paused to look.  None of them seems critical, just fascinated.

But Rockwell was best known for his humor.

Norman Rockwell self-portrait

Triple Portrait

This is a little skit.
We catch Norman at work.  He has hurriedly set himself up in the living-room and improvised everything, having gotten a sudden inspiration, probably while looking through that book of masterpieces on the chair. He has clipped pictures of his favorite portraits to the canvas to remind himself to put into his portrait the psychological depth of Rembrandt, the color and vividness of Van Gogh, the lordliness of Dürer,  and the new freedom and originality of a Cubistic painting.

The canvas came down from the attic and there wasn’t even time to blow the dust off before he started to copy one of his little sketches.
The eagle mirror, balanced so dangerously on a chair, is from the entrance hall. A self-portrait is not easy, especially for the artist who is near-sighted and needs another pair of glasses for far. Every time he glances at the mirror he needs the other pair.  And since neither will be included in his portrait, he has to do some guesswork around the eyes.

He absent-mindedly set down his drink on the book, which threatens to close and tip it over. To judge by all the matches on the floor, his pipe went out half a dozen times; and he is so careless about dropping them that he hasn’t noticed the smoke rising from the waste-paper basket.

He called this a triple portrait but there are four if you include  the character sketch or yarn he tells about himself.

Maybe in that book of masterpieces he saw this Vermeer.

He used photos

Rockwell selected very carefully the objects that fitted the setting of his story. He didn’t rely on his memory to depict them. He copied. Yet, though realistic, his things don’t look copied. His people either. That was his genius. See how he used photos and transformed each of the “real” people into the more lively figures of his paintings.

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9 Responses to Norman Rockwell

  1. KnitNell says:

    Interesting Post. A really wonderful illustrator.

  2. Ken Januski says:

    Quite a juxtaposition Swallows. Rothko and then Rockwell. I wonder what they would have thought of one another.

    Singing the neighborhood well-being and morality of America, as you say, I think encapsulates so much of what people liked and like in him. I think that may also be what many people don’t like about him now and haven’t for the last 25 years or so, this sense of neighborhood well-being and morality. I would guess that it seems false to their experience. For me the feeling is still familiar, like something I grew up with but from a distant more innocent past.

    In any case he captures it wonderfully, complete with all the details that you mention. If you’ve ever experienced that sense of well-being it’s difficult not to look back fondly on it. Picasso once complained about the cult of the pretty being replaced with the cult of the ugly. I think modern culture has replaced the cult of well-being with that of the opposite, say the culture of underlying malevolence. Hopefully the tide will turn back towards a greater appreciation for well-being.

    Coming from a fine arts background, which of course considered illustration to be a much lesser form of artistic expression, I’ve always had mixed feelings about Rockwell. I think you’re undoubtedly right that he was the best illustrator of his time. And I think illustration is far closer to so called ‘fine art’ than anyone wants to give it credit for. From a fine arts perspective there is very much in Rockwell that I think just can’t be denied.

    I always thought that this was the ability to convincingly portray that sense of well-being and underlying morality. But as I look at these paintings the first things that strikes me is how utterly convincing and lively the gestures of the figures are. Perhaps that’s what you mean when you say the gestures seem so right. That is a huge accomplishment, one that requires both graphic skill and the skill of empathy, of understanding and sympathizing physically with the figures portrayed.

    As a wildlife artist, at least in recent years, I have a great appreciation of capturing gesture. In realistic work it is what I think makes a figure seem believable, whether human or animal. You have to just marvel at Rockwell’s ability with it. My guess though is that it will take awhile, if not forever, for the art establishment to be able to see beyond the well-being and morality portrayed to the skill in doing so.

    Too bad we can’t see how the public and artists and historians will compare Rothko and Rockwell 100 years from now.

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: I imagine Rockwell would have spent longer considering Rothko’s paintings than Rothko, Rockwell’s.

      When I started writing about Rockwell, I was critical. I remembered some of his early work, which bordered on the kitsch, and I attacked him for fostering complacency. The “neighborhood morality and well-being” was a phrase left over from that first try at dealing with him. Yet I liked his best work and decided it was unfair to focus on his worst.
      As I just told Danu, the subject got bigger and bigger as I tried to put together a post: art vs. illustration; the place of humor in art; Rockwell’s talent as a painter; his involvement in social and political issues; the messages of his paintings and America’s “comfyness”. One of my beginnings was this one: “Call an illustrator an ‘artist’ and he thanks you. Call an artist an ‘illustrator’ and see how he sours. Both of them paint and use most of the same resources. What is the difference? Why can’t illustrations be great art?”

      That neighborhood well-being couldn’t last. America finally got out of bed (well, many did) and had a look outside (and a few, inside). Things blew up in the 60s. Even when I was a boy someone showed me a poem by Ferlinghetti—I think it was called “America.” I was shocked but also fascinated. It was like a terrorist bomb in our quiet neighborhood.

      That sounds true about the substitution of underlying malevolence but I’ve been away from the American scene too long to judge.

      Of course serious students of art didn’t pay attention to Rockwell. You fellows were watching what Rothko and Pollack and others were doing.

      I agree about the utterly convincing and lively gestures of the people in his paintings. Very few artists ever came so close to representation like that. By comparison, the people in most paintings, even great ones, look like third-rate actors.
      I’m working on another Rockwell post.

      • Ken Januski says:

        Hi Swallows,

        Yes the fine art/illustration dichotomy is a difficult one. Rockwell is probably the best place to see it in American art, though many would put Wyeth there saying that he’s an illustrator not a fine artist. And of course you’d have an instant battle with those who think the opposite!

        I notice the dichotomy most in wildlife art, where many of its practitioners have actually made a living as illustrators. Bob Kuhn is the best example that I know of, But he finally left illustration and turned just to painting, where Rothko was one of his influences. Sad to say that is extremely rare in wildlife art. Few venture where Kuhn did.

        Oddly I just got a present of a book by theBritsh wildlife artist John Threlfall who mentions the influence of Kuhn. In him you can also see a wildlife artist who aspires I think to fine art.

        But the big question as you say is: what is the difference? I’ve thought about it for years, especially since I turned to wildlife art, without any good answers. The best I can think of is that illustrators, talented though many may be, seem to rely more on formulas. Fine artists, and by that I mean good fine artists, not all the mediocre ones, strive to say something fresh out older forms or formulas. I don’t think that this is a desire for the new, which has dominated contemporary art for 100 years, but more a desire to make art alive, not stale. If I were to pick one attribute that I think most describes the good and great fine artists it is the desire to make their art fresh, no matter how conventional their subject, medium or other tools of the trade may be.

        Maybe by definition an illustrator, often just doesn’t have the time for that even if he does have the desire.

        As contemporary art has gone on its merry way over the last 100 years it has jettisoned almost all that was once considered important in art, leaving as best I can tell from my remote view of it, just irony and hothouse intellectualism. Many of the best qualities, ones that I think will never die out or stop being appreciated by some, seem to live mainly in illustration now, things like the animation and humor that are so evident in Rockwell. To an extent it reminds me of the notion that civilization continued under the auspices of the Catholic Church during the middle ages. I guess that’s also one of the values I think is in the best wildlife art, a sense of animation, beauty, connection with the world that is absent from so much of the contemporary art that is in museums, galleries, and yet sells for milllions.

        • 100swallows says:

          Ken: I didn’t know they were calling Wyeth an illustrator. I wonder if they can put their finger on the difference any better than I can.
          In the post I just published I wrote this, then eliminated it for reasons of brevity:
          “Many writers, as well as painters, felt dissatisfaction with the old forms. William Faulkner said he could not consider Ernest Hemingway the greatest writer of his time because he always stuck to a traditional narrative technique and never went beyond what he knew he could do. Faulkner probably gave himself the prize for experimenting so intrepidly.”
          [Yet, for all his bravery (if that is what it was) Faulkner had fewer readers and may well have even fewer as time goes by. Try to read him. Try to read Joyce’s Ulysses. Try to deal with Gertrude Stein’s experiments. Hemingway, after all, did bring something new to writing, Faulkner’s dictum notwithstanding.]

          Many of the experimenters would have considered Rockwell out of the contest for the same reason.
          By the way, I thought Rockwell shows himself most clearly as a “mere” illustrator in his portraits of Kennedy, Eisenhower, and himself (the one on the canvas of his self portrait painting). They are “flat”. They don’t say more about the men than what is conventional. He seems to be unable to give them the “greatness” look he meant, or any psychological depth.

          You say: “[Fine artists, unlike the illustrators] try to say something fresh out of older forms and formulas.” But then what if you agree with the traditional classification of Gustav Doré, for example, as an illustrator? He was highly original in treatment, in his forms.
          I wondered whether the difference was in the “what” rather than the “how”. Though it tries to please the eye and produce an emotional impact, fine art usually has no real point to make, no message —at least none pertaining to time and place. It turns its back on controversy, opinion, politics [but not religion! I’d better be careful or I’ll disqualify the Sistine Chapel paintings!]… But no–it is in the “how”.

          Another angle was this: that the artist always jumps from the particular to the general. He might paint John Brown on his favorite horse “Charger” but his John and Charger become Everyman on a horse, or man in nature, or the fun of riding, or some abstract notion. The illustrator stays with John Brown—the particular.
          But I couldn’t go further. I saw exceptions everywhere. I had to give up.

          Your “missing in modern art are animation, beauty, connection with the world—these seem to live mainly in illustration now” is good, though I know that by “connection with the world” you don’t mean social themes, of which much modern art (not too fine) is full. And, yes, damn the irony!

  3. Great post, 100swallows! Nostalgic, a bit. What I also saw in Rockwell painting / or illustrations; It doesn’t make much difference to me…is the exceptional graphic and color qualities of his paintings, the way he is able to harmonize colors in so many nuances while still having a dominant…He was exceptionally gifted, I think. Not an easy feat…Best wishes!

    • 100swallows says:

      Danu: Thanks. I had a hard time deciding how to write about Rockwell—he ended up being almost too big a subject. I was surprised at my inability to come up with the difference between illustration and art or a fair criticism of his work in those terms. My post got way too long. I agree with you about his outstanding graphic and color skills but decided to limit myself in this first post to his story-telling. There’s another one in the offing. All my best to you too. Sorry about those bad reproductions of Rockwell’s work. There are others which must be better on the Google images page but I took these from where I could. I’ve never seen an original.

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