Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People

at the Chicago Historical Society, through May 21

By Fred Camper

Like a lot of Americans, I had my first art experience with Norman Rockwell. He was also responsible for my first disappointment. At age five or six I found a copy of my father’s old Boy Scout Handbook. The Rockwell painting on its cover showed some Scouts sitting around a campfire while above them hovered a ghostly presence that startled me–a strong, wise-looking Indian. I knew only a little about Indians then, but I was intrigued by the idea of secrets to be discovered in the wilderness.

In my early teens the Boy Scouts came out with a revised version of the handbook that downplayed woods lore in favor of good citizenship; there was even a laughably vague section about puberty. In Rockwell’s new cover the woods were gone, and in their place were small vignettes featuring cartoony pink-cheeked Scouts happily going about various tasks. I was appalled: how could someone who’d rendered the wilderness with so much feeling stoop to this? Was he that much of a soulless hack?

The truth about Rockwell is more complex than that, as I learned from the Chicago Historical Society exhibit of some 70 Rockwell paintings, assorted drawings, and all 332 of his Saturday Evening Post covers, as well as from the show’s catalog and Rockwell’s autobiography, My Adventures as an Illustrator. Rockwell did try to please his clients, and he talked about judging the success of his pictures by whether or not the public liked them. But he also wrote about not wanting to paint scenes that he had no feeling for, turning down high-paying jobs he didn’t think he could do well, and staying true to his own instincts rather than following the trends. And he worked incredibly hard, from his student days, drawing from casts and models, through his adult life, making multiple studies and photographs for a single painting.

Born in New York City in 1894, Rockwell had a natural talent for drawing that emerged early. By his late teens he’d made a name for himself as an illustrator, and by 1916 he’d done his first cover for the Saturday Evening Post; 47 years later he did his last. (He died in 1978.) His pictures show great technical skill. He wanted to touch people’s emotions immediately, and he did. For much of his life he was our country’s most famous living artist. His pictures have humanity and humor. They also form an invaluable record of the ways our nation saw itself over the decades, one reason it’s appropriate this touring show is at the Chicago Historical Society rather than a fine arts museum–though it will be exhibited in fine arts museums at every other city on the tour.

Yet by everything I’ve ever understood the phrase “fine art” to mean, Norman Rockwell was a very, very bad artist. He admits in his autobiography that he excluded “the sordid and ugly. I paint life as I would like it to be.” He chose to depict, and eventually live in, the small-town America that was often the ideal of city dwellers. That’s not what makes him a bad artist: great artists have been seeking paradise in paint for hundreds of years. But when a major touring exhibition of his work is titled “Pictures for the American People” and is mounted, mostly uncritically, at the Chicago Historical Society, some note should be made of the way Rockwell falsified history.

Consider Freedom of Speech (1943), based on Rockwell’s memory of a Vermont town meeting at which one citizen had said something “everybody disagreed with . . . and no one had shouted him down.” Rockwell shows a man in blue-collar attire speaking while white-collar types on either side of him listen respectfully. But the speaker looks absurd: his eyes and face are tilted unrealistically upward as he’s apparently seized by a vision; even the lines of his jacket and pants seem to point up. This isn’t an ordinary citizen ennobled–he’s being canonized. Surely it’s true that attendees at town meetings have been inspired or moved to tolerance. But Rockwell excludes the other side of small-town life–ignorance, jealousy, bigotry–until a very few civil rights pictures painted in the 60s.

There’s a similar tunnel vision in The Runaway (1958). A little boy and a policeman are seated next to each other at a lunch counter. Clearly the boy ran away from home; soon nice Mr. Policeman will return him to his loving family. Many stories did turn out that way. But other kids fled from physical and sexual abuse at home, often at the hands of their parents. In Rockwell’s cute, innocuous stories passions never grow much stronger than mild irritation, excluding the possibility that such things could happen–an exclusion that in the culture at large allowed abuse to flourish.

A return to Rockwell’s incomplete and largely uncritical view of America is the last thing we need today, when as the last superpower our country’s pride remains largely unchecked. And the disturbingly banal arguments for Rockwell’s importance by many of the catalog essayists (Laurie Norton Moffatt, director of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, writes that his paintings “powerfully portray the universal truths, aspirations, and foibles of humanity”) make it sound as if the achievements and lessons of modernism never occurred. There’s a reason why totalitarian regimes have always suppressed modernist art–and it’s no accident that Rockwell’s overobvious art bears a troubling resemblance to some phases of socialist realism. His brand of humanism focuses on what we all have in common, while modernism encourages viewers to respond to a work as thinking individuals.

For me there’s no more towering figure in the modern period than Paul Cezanne. But to be fair, Cezanne had a luxury known to few modern artists, Rockwell included: an income that meant he could paint as he liked. The result was art that almost no one else liked, at least for a long time.

Cezanne’s great achievement was precisely this: his paintings were not pictures, as Mark Rothko once said enthusiastically of some of his own late works. They depict something, yes, but they also veer toward abstraction, calling into question the way we see; their compositions seem organized but also fall apart into individual patches of color. Cezanne never resolved the tension in his work between planes and volumes, between objects and their edges, between earthbound objects and the sky. His paintings always feel unfinished, making a space for the viewer. The picture’s conflicts activate the eye and mind.

A Cezanne painting rewards the time you take with it. But Rockwell painted pictures that could be comprehended in an instant. In his autobiography he quotes Saturday Evening Post editor George Horace Lorimer as saying: “If it doesn’t strike me immediately, I don’t want it. And neither does the public. They won’t spend an hour figuring it out.”

The problem is that this exhibition is trying to make the case that Rockwell’s work is worthy of being hung alongside the masters in a major museum. Yet more than one catalog essayist, after failing to make an aesthetic argument of any substance, falls back on Rockwell’s popularity as proof of his greatness–a strange way to justify a claim of high art. Judy L. Larson and Maureen Hart Hennessey call his art “wise, heartfelt, acute, and intense”–words that might just as well describe grandfather’s anecdotes. Citing his popularity, they write, “Rockwell represented the democratization of American art in an era when critics praised highly sophisticated, introspective expressions.”

“Democratic” better describes Cezanne and the modernists who followed him, in whose work the viewer’s perceptions and the painting meet on a level playing field, inducing a dynamic process, a struggle to see. Rockwell places his subjects’ emotions right on the surface; he tells you what to think and how to feel. One can only be charmed by Doctor and Doll (1929), a painting (later a magazine cover) in which a doctor indulges a little girl by pretending to examine her “baby.” The objects in the scene are all arranged for immediate comprehensibility–the painter telegraphs his meanings directly and univocally. That’s not democracy, it’s a dictatorship. People often don’t want true democracy in their art viewing because it’s hard and time-consuming and the outcome is uncertain. They want to be told what to feel by someone who, like today’s fast-food franchises, always serves the same bland, cardboard fare. But in a true democracy citizens are active participants rather than passive consumers.

One wall label quotes Rockwell as saying: “One of the most difficult problems in painting magazine covers is thinking up ideas which a majority of the readers will understand. The farmer worries about the price of milk; the housewife fusses over the drapes for the dining room; the gossip gossips about Mrs. Purdy and her highfalutin’ airs; you have to think of an idea which will mean something to all of them.” His answer to that problem is to strip away subjects’ uniqueness, as can be seen in works like Going and Coming (1947), a diptych. The top half depicts a family in a car going on an outing; the bottom depicts their return. In Going everyone is full of vitality and expectation: a little girl chewing gum blows a large bubble; behind the wheel, dad seems pleased with himself; twin boys (Rockwell seems to have liked twins) are leaning out their windows boisterously. In Coming the boys are more subdued, a few family members are sleeping or near sleep, the girl is blowing a smaller bubble. Only grandmother seems completely unchanged–one of Rockwell’s little jokes.

The faces express particular emotions and express them well. But the emotions themselves are generic. Great portraits by artists like Dürer and Rembrandt make the human species seem infinitely variable. Rockwell gives us expressions common to all little boys–or girls, or grandmothers. But he’s done so by robbing his subjects of any depth.

One of the profoundest statements on art that I know of can be found in Joachim Gasquet’s Cezanne: A Memoir With Conversations. (The quotes are likely more Gasquet’s “interpretation” of Cezanne than an accurate transcription.) The painter talked about Balzac describing a “tablecloth white as a layer of newly fallen snow, upon which the place-settings rise symmetrically, crowned with blond rolls.” Cezanne says that “all through youth, I wanted to paint that, that tablecloth of new snow…. Now I know that one must will only to paint the place-settings rising symmetrically and the blond rolls. If I paint ‘crowned’ I’ve had it, you understand? But if I really balance and shade my place-settings and rolls as they are in nature, then you can be sure that the crowns, the snow, and all the excitement will be there too.” The “excitement” will be there, I might add, because the viewer will discover it for himself.

In Rockwell’s After the Prom (1946) a boy and girl face each other on soda fountain stools while the soda jerk behind the counter sniffs the girl’s corsage. As Dave Hickey points out in a catalog essay, their white garments form a kind of “clustered burst of white in the center,” suggesting the gentle odor of the girl’s corsage. (Hickey also analyzes the formal balance created by the picture’s diagonals, both visible and implied–an analysis that seems to work much better for the catalog reproduction than for the thickly painted original.) But what we apprehend are predigested emotions and ideas: the girl’s demure pleasure and the boy’s tentativeness.

Rockwell said that he wasn’t a realist, but he’s also arguably not painting the world as he would like it to be either. A convincing painting would make an ideal environment palpable, but too often Rockwell’s manipulations are distracting, not convincing. In one of the more interesting catalog essays, Wanda M. Corn suggests that Rockwell was well aware that the “contemporary style of absorbed looking that promised transcendence” was not for him. And he wrote that he could never get himself to “swoon” in front of a painting, not even a Rembrandt: “I’m just not that type. I am, and always was, hard-working, regular.”

His manipulation of the material in New Kids in the Neighborhood (1967) offers easy solutions to hard questions. One of the paintings made in response to the social issues of the 60s, it shows a confrontation between children, two black and three white. The scene is a little tense, but from the baseball gloves the boys are holding and the pink ribbons in the girls’ hair you know they’re all going to be friends. Rockwell goes further, however, presumably to avoid offending his white audience: the white boy is a little taller than the black, the black girl is much more femininely dressed than the white, the black girl holds a white cat, telling us how arbitrary color is but also lightening the “black” side of the picture. These black kids are acceptable because, like the Sidney Poitier character in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, they’re so utterly unthreatening.

Rockwell was skilled enough to paint like a photorealist if he wanted to, and in the later decades of his career he painted from photos of models. But usually he chose a style that was softer edged than a photograph, inviting us into the image. Dave Hickey’s arguments for Rockwell’s compositions notwithstanding, it’s not the formal qualities of his paintings that we remember but the faces of his characters. In this sense his paintings have an effect akin to that of many Hollywood films. Indeed, Rockwell has been compared to Frank Capra, and Steven Spielberg is one of his biggest collectors. (Another is Ross Perot.)

Rockwell describes how one of his art teachers, Thomas Fogarty, used to tell him to “step over the frame and live in the picture.” Part of the idea was to invent detailed lives for the characters he was painting. But this attitude encourages art in which the viewer is invited to live inside the depicted fiction too. Rockwell ignores what modernism has taught us–that in art we’re not seeing a “world” but the calculated composition of an artist. And being aware of such calculated constructions is also the way to avoid being manipulated by propaganda.

In perhaps the best of the catalog essays, Rockwell’s son Peter gives an account of those pictures that are explicitly about the process of making or viewing paintings. He even proposes that in Triple Self-Portrait (1960)–which shows Rockwell from behind, in a mirror, and in the self-portrait he’s painting–the artist allows viewers to “construct the meaning” for themselves. But I think Triple Self-Portrait is the painter’s explicit admission of his limitations. To his right are mounted small reproductions of four self-portraits by Dürer, Rembrandt, Picasso, and van Gogh. On a narrative level they tell us about the inspiration he seeks while painting. But Rockwell’s skillful imitations of these famous paintings make it clear how much more compelling they are than his own self-portrait, the largest and most visible of his three renditions. Dürer’s long curls vibrate rhythmically; his eyes penetrate. Rembrandt’s eyes have an even greater mystery, and van Gogh’s intense colors are wildly expressive. By contrast Rockwell’s black-and-white self-portrait is humorously bland. Permitting himself the grandest of inspirations, he comes up with an image that’s flat, plain–“hard-working, regular.” In this painting Rockwell himself tells us that, by the standards of great art, he ain’t it.

There are two or three pictures in the show that do offer the viewer a somewhat more complex experience than some of Rockwell’s statements would suggest. In the exhibition’s best picture, Shuffleton’s Barbershop (1950), we see through a bright doorway men making music together in a back room. The darkened front room, full of fine details, is not only visually intriguing in itself but gives the faraway human proceedings an air of mystery, while the barbershop window and doorway create frames within frames.

The show’s worst picture has also been chosen for the catalog’s title page. In Christmas Homecoming (1948) a college boy is welcomed home by members of his family, old, middle-aged, and young (among the models were Rockwell’s family and Grandma Moses); two impossibly cute twin girls in matching outfits are arrayed on either side of the painting, offering a bit of symmetry. The college boy, positioned with his back to us, is our surrogate in the scene, leading us into the frame and the picture’s warm fuzziness.

There’s one little problem: everyone looks the same. Each smile is entirely predictable from the character’s age. Grandma Moses’s expression seems limited by the rigid lines of her face, while a teenager’s mouth is agape. As in so many of his other pictures, Rockwell goes for the human emotion that will be felt by everyone, for the lowest common denominator. We all know the joy of greeting a loved one, but when that feeling is repeated without variation on numerous faces as it is here, it becomes a nullity, a hollow echo. Like a totalitarian society that seeks to efface individuality, this painting has something frighteningly programmatic about it.

Hickey praises Rockwell for his celebration of the ordinary without mentioning the parts of human nature that Rockwell obliterates. His little bits of cute “mess”–the untied shoelace or the two pieces of clothing that protrude from the boy’s suitcase in Christmas Homecoming–remind us of human foibles but also of how easily they can be fixed. Our minds are diverted from life’s tragedies–Rockwell’s work seeks to deny the chaos in our souls.

In his most extravagant claim, Hickey calls Rockwell “the last, best practitioner of a tradition of social painting that began in the seventeenth century.” I don’t think so, and I’ve found the perfect argument against Rockwell’s inclusion in that tradition in a painting from the period Hickey mentions. In the State Hermitage Museum of Saint Petersburg, Russia, hangs A Visit to Grandmother by Louis Le Nain, one of three brothers who worked together in Paris in the first half of the 17th century. Like Christmas Homecoming it depicts a family gathering. But each person wears a different expression, and not everyone looks at the grandmother, seated at the left. Three boys at the right seem to be making music together, paying attention only to one another. Perhaps their concert is for grandmother, but Le Nain gives us no clear cues. Two doorways at the rear complicate and open up the space; one gives a view outdoors, recalling the fragility of life lived so close to the land. This is a tough view of real people gathered together, sometimes acknowledging others’ presence, sometimes living in their own worlds.

More important, Le Nain’s magnificent technique creates forms that appear at once monumental and fragile; this hauntingly beautiful picture vibrates between suggesting eternity and acknowledging that it depicts a mere moment in time. Painting with a precision and hardness Rockwell eschews, Le Nain creates almost sculptural forms even as the subjects’ individualized poses suggest ephemerality. Offering no grand theme, A Visit to Grandmother remains true to the gritty specifics of physical existence. The almost metallic intensity of Le Nain’s colors and the way the room’s vertical beams and the two doorways reinforce the image’s rectilinearity all remind us of the composition’s artificiality. At once a real scene and a creation of paint, A Visit to Grandmother has some of the complexities of life as it is really lived, and none of the sweetness of the lies we like to tell ourselves.