Thursday, January 27, 2011

Norman Rockwell Draws a Crowd


In a recent article in Britain's The Independent, critic Adrian Hamilton reluctantly agreed with his counterpart at The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl, who in 1999 said, "(Norman) Rockwell is terrific."  Loathe to too strongly praise the American artist, however, Hamilton followed his compliment with the rejoinder that "'Terrific' isn't the same thing as good."  Hamilton's review for Norman Rockwell's America, currently on view at London's Dulwich Picture Gallery, cannot escape the author's prejudice, not against the U.S.A., but against the art of illustration.   He admits not knowing much about Rockwell's paintings before viewing the show (his milieu is actually international affairs), and, to his surprise, he seems to find elements of Rockwell's work to recommend, but not before disparaging the artist's effective visual communication skills and his ability to portray American optimism even in the country's darker times.  Dulwich Gallery too is faulted, for hosting a show with commercial and popular support, as if attracting crowds to a museum in such hard economic times were a bad thing.  The article, titled, "Norman Rockwell:  An Artisan, not an Artist" concludes with Hamilton forecasting that, despite "calls for his re-evaluation in the canon of American art,"¹ Rockwell will never be regarded as "more than a supreme commercial artist of his time;"² it's a back-handed compliment for Rockwell that never disguises the author's opinion of illustration's place in the art world.

Hamilton is singing an old tune, but thankfully, one that is losing popularity.  Other reviewers of the Dulwich exhibition were able to see through past biases and interpret correctly Rockwell's narrative paintings as significant to 20th century art.  "Only recently," says Emma Crichton-Miller of Prospect, "... the critically hardheaded have begun to acknowledge the truthfulness in the sweetness of Rockwell's creations."³  He knew how to show America "the story of its people"⁴ and the mood of his times, in a way that abstract expressionism never could.⁵  If he presented only one side of America, that aspect of his country that was optimistic, moral, unprejudiced, and hard-working, he did so fully cognizant of his choice  to portray America only as he wished it to be.  And this portrayal, filled with humor, poignancy, and an uncommon empathy for the common man, was always executed  with unfailing and unparalleled technical mastery of his craft.⁶  Said Abby Cronin in the 2010 Winter edition of Illustration, "His command of composition, design and perspective and use of light demonstrate a sophisticated grasp of artistic skills.  Rockwell has earned his place in the history of western art and 'Rockwellian' is no longer a term of abuse."⁷

Though never a darling of the critical art elite, Rockwell has long been a favorite of the everyman he so skillfully painted, and the artist's popularity has given no indication of losing its bloom, even now, more than three decades after his death.  During the 2010 season, there were no fewer than five exhibitions centered on Norman Rockwell:  Norman Rockwell's America now on view at the Dulwich Picture Gallery; American Chronicles:  The Art of Norman Rockwell, currently at the North Carolina Museum of Art; Norman Rockwell:  Behind the Camera, currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum of Art; Norman Rockwell and his Mentor J.C. Leyendecker, held this past summer at the National Museum of American Illustration; and Telling Stories:  Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg which recently closed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.   This last show alone had approximately 706,000 visitors during its six month run, which was a 52% increase in attendance at the gallery over the same time period in 2009, and which made Telling Stories the most popular show at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in recent history.⁸

Some may say that the recent resurgence of interest in Norman Rockwell is really a reflection of the world turning to 'Rockwellian' optimism in hopes of alleviating the real world fears generated by current, difficult economic times.  This is certainly part of the truth.  But perhaps it is also the economy and the dire financial circumstances museums now find themselves facing which is creating a shift in the politics of art criticism and museum exhibition schedules.  The public will flock to see the narrative works of Norman Rockwell, an artist most fine art museums once disdained, and now that federal funding for these institutions is being cut, it is the public who must be catered to, and not the snobbish elite.  It is hopefully a sign that illustration- and representational art in general- will gain the recognition in contemporary culture it rightfully deserves.  Until then, let the common man rejoice that "the arbiters of taste" are finally recognizing the truth Peter Schjeldahl stated more than a decade ago:  "Rockwell is terrific.  It's become too tedious to pretend he isn't."⁹


The Smithsonian American Art Museum gave visitors to the show Telling Stories:  Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg a chance to comment on the exhibition.  Here are a few of their observations:

"I am only ten, but, I have a favorite artist…His name is Norman Rockwell. He is able to take those pure moments that all of us have, and turn them into art."

"Gracias por esta maravillosa exposición. Rockwell nos hace ser mejores personas." [Thank you for this marvelous show. Rockwell makes us better people.]

"Some artists strive to capture the physical. NR also captured those emotions that make us human."

"These are the stained glass windows of the American cathedral. Thank you for sharing them with us."

"Rarely have I ever been to an exhibit where there was so much interaction between the viewers—people making comments to strangers, laughing, smiling at one another. That is what makes Rockwell such an important artist."

"I served in Iraq and will soon go to Afghanistan. If other nations had their own Rockwell we would have more friends in the world and fewer enemies and wars."

"I have more of a sense of American history and American spirit after seeing these pictures than after all the monuments combined."

To see more comments, visit Eye Level - Comments at an Exhibition: Visitors Respond to Rockwell.


The National Museum of American Illustration has catalogs available for both Norman Rockwell's America ... In England and Norman Rockwell and his Mentor:  J.C. Leyendecker.  The cover prices are $35 and $30 respectively, but if ordered together the museum is offering a special New Year's combined discount price of $48.  Contact the NMAI online store for more information.


Norman Rockwell's America, currently on view at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, will return to the National Museum of American Illustration during the Memorial Day Weekend in 2011.


¹ Hamilton, Adrian, "Norman Rockwell: An artisan, not an artist", The Independent, December 27, 2010, retrieved January 24, 2011 from
² idem.
³ Crichton-Miller, Emma, "Prospect Recommends", Prospect, December 1, 2010, retrieved January 26, 2011 from
⁴ Burgess, Laura, "The Illustrations of Norman Rockwell's 20th Century America at Dulwich Picture Gallery", Culture24, December 24, 2010, retrieved January 26, 2011 from
⁵ Fox, Celina, "American Dreamweaver", House & Garden, January 2011, retrieved January 26, 2011 from
⁶ Güner, Fisun, "Norman Rockwell's America, Dulwich Picture Galley", The Art Desk, December 16, 2010, retrieved January 26, 2011 from
⁷ Cronin, Abby, "American Eye", Illustration, Issue 26: Winter 2010, retrieved January 26, 2011 from
⁸ Trescott, Jacqueline, "Rockwell:  Officially a Blockbuster", The Washington Post, January 5, 2011, retrieved January 26, 2011 from
⁹ Schjeldahl, Peter, "Fanfares for the Common Man", The New Yorker, November 22, 1999.


william wray said...

His art speaks for itself. I've always been amazed people will let a category think for them. Pure ignorance steeped in protective classicism. The talentless are so scared people are going to see though the fine art BS machine and climb into there gated community and they are so right. The walls are tumbling down. Glad I lived to be part of it.

Susan Roux said...

I've always enjoyed and been fascinated by NR art. Great post. Thank you.

Casey Klahn said...

When I was @ 10 years old, I took the FAS Norman Rockwell's Correspondence Course For Talented Young People. Isn't that a mouthful?

Very well reported, and the emphasis on optimism is a great story about NR. If you think he avoided issues, then you aren't even looking.

Also, if one says that illustrators aren't artists, then he ought to try to do what Rockwell did himself. That amount of evocation doesn't just happen through strict realism. It comes from the heart of an artist.

Katherine Tyrrell said...

I really enjoyed reading this and will be featuring it in "who's made a mark this week?' on my blog next Sunday

skopas said...

Great post. NR is always so refreshing and aspiring to say the least. Talk about capturing moments in time. Just great.

Mick Carney said...

Please believe that the opinions expressed by so-called critics in the English press are not at all indicative of artistic opinion over here. A group of artists and myself had a long discussion about the quoted article and to a person we were of a mind that the quality of NR's work totally transcended any silly little soubriquet like 'illustrator'. His work says so much about the human condition and is rendered with such skill that he represents much of what is good about this obsession of ours.

digitect said...

Wow, couldn't believe your post after just seeing four of the paintings yesterday at the NR exhibit at the NC Museum of Art.

I was impressed with Rockwell's skill as a pure painter. He had such a facile comfort with color. From blue-red-yellow chin-nose-foreheads, back lit subjects, and receding saturation moving back, his paintings were masterful.

It also does not bother me that he chose to use his talent mostly in commentary on everyday subject matter. My kids could get the humor of his lighthearted paintings (for example, Deadline), but there is also something adult about the humor, too. Although there is the initial smile, they also make you nod in understanding. I'm not one that believes all art should be dark and brooding to have deep meaning.

Thanks for the post.

JonInFrance said...

There's only truth and passion...

PJ Lynch said...

Great post on a great artist.

I have long felt that those who feel a need to divide creative people into neat categories (artist or commercial artist or illustrator), betray a lack of confidence in their own critical judgement.

Donald Ranaweera Ranaweera said...

To me the best Artist ever.The best painting of Norman Rockwell's `Farewell'. Father and son seated by the railway track with family dog rests his chin on son's lap waiting for the train. Sad faces of father's and dogs is amazing.