“I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed.” – Norman Rockwell
Mention the name “Norman Rockwell,” and different thoughts bubble up for different people.
The gawky New England artist charmed millions of Americans for nearly 50 years as the Saturday Evening Post’s most beloved cover illustrator and chronicler of small-town life. At the same time, many critics snubbed Rockwell as too cliché, sentimental or homogenous to be taken seriously.
“Norman Rockwell is arguably America’s most famous artist ever,” said Wes Jessup, executive director of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, where a new exhibition, “Norman Rockwell’s America,” opened this weekend. “Who was more famous? Warhol? No. Warhol was actually a big collector of Rockwell.”
Rockwell was born in New York City in 1894 and died in 1978 in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, at age 84. He lived and worked during some of the most impactful movements in modern art history such as impressionism, cubism, surrealism and abstract expressionism.
But he forged his own way as an illustrator. He once said, “Some people have been kind enough to call me a fine artist. I’ve always called myself an illustrator.”
“I’m 50, and when I was in college, Rockwell was considered retrograde. He was overlooked,” Jessup said. “So I think there is a rediscovery coming from my generation and younger people.”
Last month, singer/songwriter Lana Del Rey released her new album, provocatively titled “Norman (expletive) Rockwell.” The moniker suggests that maybe everything in America is not quite so perfect after all.
There is even a term bolstering Rockwell’s lasting impact on popular culture: “Rockwellian.” It can refer to anything quaint, idealistic or sentimental such as a “Rockwellian childhood” or a “Rockwellian holiday celebration.”
‘Vivid and affectionate portraits’
No matter where one places Rockwell in the canon, his depictions of everyday life made him the most widely circulated and universally beloved American artist of the 20th century. Rockwell’s “vivid and affectionate portraits of our country” garnered him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
The MAC exhibition will use Rockwell’s singular art and enduring vision of a hopeful America to chronicle the nation’s history and examine what constitutes the American spirit. “Norman Rockwell America” is a show of 22 oil paintings, seven charcoal or graphite studies, original posters and all 323 Post magazine covers spanning six decades. It’s the first solo exhibition of Rockwell’s paintings and covers to visit the Inland Northwest.
The exhibition is arranged in chronological order, making the stages of his career recognizable and his images more poignant. The original works give viewers the chance to observe Rockwell’s superb craftsmanship and attention to detail, characteristics sometimes overlooked in the more widely seen reproductions.
In a masterful style almost photograph-like, and in hyper-real detail, Rockwell painted everyday people in ordinary situations. His goal was to tell a story, in a single picture, armed only with a paintbrush.
He lived through two World Wars, the Great Depression, Korean War and Vietnam. But the stories he told most often were relentlessly optimistic, depicting a simpler world, one worth fighting for.
In Rockwell’s paintings, the nation’s rich tapestry is united by holiday rituals, faith and family life. Rockwell’s America is a place where honest, hard-working people endeavor to live rather than a world in which they really live. As Peter Schjedahl wrote in the New Yorker, “He didn’t illustrate Middle America. He invented Middle America.”
For example, readers of the Post delighted in Rockwell’s paintings of humorous childhood escapades. The iconic images include the illustration of the little boys running while yanking on their clothes after sneaking a dip in the local waterhole, the little girl with a black eye sitting outside the principal’s office with a huge grin spread on her face, and the young runaway chatting with a cop at the soda fountain counter with his bundle of clothes tied to a stick in full view under his barstool.
There are lots of intergenerational interactions, too: a grandfather picking up a bat to hit a few balls with the little ones, the daughter watching mom put on makeup at her vanity table and the parents putting their kids to bed. In 1955, Post readers voted the 1951 Thanksgiving issue their all-time favorite cover. The illustration depicts a woman and a young boy saying grace in a crowded restaurant as they are observed by other people at their table.
‘Extraordinary in the ordinary’
“He found the extraordinary in the ordinary moments because when you get to the truth of life, I think what we really remember is how beautiful it was to have a cup of tea with that person,” said Rockwell’s granddaughter Abigail Rockwell, who conducted a phone interview from her home back East.
“Yes, you will remember the Taj Mahal after you visit, but don’t we really go back to the small moments and think, ‘Oh God, I miss having tea with that person?’”
One of the paintings hanging in the MAC exhibit is titled “The Party After the Party.” Rockwell lovingly created an intimate scene in which a granddaughter kneels on the parlor floor in front of her grandmother’s chair. The pair holds hands as the young woman, still clad in her finery, tells Grandma all that happened at the party.
“Yes, I just got chills!” said Abigail Rockwell, now the de facto historian of the family. “That is a really sweet and memorable moment. That is part of the Edison Mazda series (of advertisements Rockwell illustrated) in the 1920s. I’ve always thought it’s some of his best work.”
Abigail Rockwell, who also is a successful jazz singer, will travel to Spokane to give a talk at the MAC on Nov. 7 at 5:30 p.m. and lead a private tour. Tickets are $25. She also will sign copies of the recently re-released autobiography by her grandfather, “My Adventures as an Illustrator: The Definitive Edition.” Abigail Rockwell has spent much of the last several years researching and updating the book. Her goal was to bust false myths and preserve her grandfather’s legacy.
One of the biggest misconceptions she said that she finds is that her “Pop,” as she calls him, painted only white America. However, a look at some of Rockwell’s most iconic works belies that notion.
In 1961, the artist painted “The Golden Rule,” showing people of different religious faiths and ethnic backgrounds worshipping together. However, Rockwell himself once recalled being directed to paint out a black person from a group picture in the Post. The policy at the time only allowed the portrayal of African Americans in service jobs next to white people.
After leaving the Post in 1963, Rockwell appeared eager to refocus his efforts on supporting the Civil Rights movement. In 1964, he produced his iconic painting “The Problem We All Live With.” It depicts Ruby Bridges, a 6-year-old African American girl, on her way to an all-white public school during the New Orleans desegregation crisis. Due to threatened violence, she is being escorted by federal marshals. On the wall behind her are scrawled a racial slur and the letters “KKK.”
‘Ruining his legacy’
“Pop had the bravery to put those words on the wall,” Abigail said. “People don’t realize how controversial it was for him to do that. I saw the angry letters castigating him for ‘ruining his legacy.’ ”
One of Rockwell’s proudest moments, according to his granddaughter, was when he received a lifetime membership card to the NAACP. More than 30 years later, his portrait of Bridges was installed in the hall outside the Oval Office at the White House for several months during the Obama administration. Reproductions of this and more of Rockwell’s Civil Rights era paintings will be on display at the MAC as part of the current exhibition.
Another project Rockwell undertook after leaving the Post was a commission to paint a portrait of Abraham Lincoln for Spokane’s Lincoln First Federal Savings and Loan. The bank’s CEO, the late Spokane resident Donald P. Lindsay, had the idea to hire America’s most famous artist.
“My dad thought it was no big deal to write Norman Rockwell and just ask him to do it,” recalled Lindsay’s eldest daughter, Karen Warrick. “And it worked.”
For $4,000, Rockwell agreed to produce the 7-foot piece, taller even than Lincoln himself. Finished in 1965, the portrait depicts the 16th president as a young man on the farm dressed in work clothes holding an ax in one hand and a book in the other. “Lincoln the Railsplitter” was used to market the Spokane bank and all the branches throughout the state. Jar openers, golf balls, calendars and stationery all bore Rockwell’s Lincoln image.
The original painting hung for two decades in the Lincoln First Federal Bank lobby located in what is now the Lincoln building at Riverside and Lincoln. After the bank changed hands, the piece later made its way to the private collection of former presidential candidate H. Ross Perot. It was eventually sold at auction to the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, in 2006 for $1.6 million.
The MAC has gathered letters, photos, bank memorabilia and a reproduction of “Lincoln the Railsplitter” to include in the exhibition. “It’s exciting that one of the most famous paintings of Abraham Lincoln that was ever done was done by one of America’s most famous artists and that it originated right here in Spokane,” Jessup said.
Warrick said that she hopes the Rockwell exhibit accomplishes what the artist himself wanted: to rekindle the American spirit. “I just hope that a lot of people are reassured that we care for one another in this country, that we are all the things that Rockwell brings out in his paintings,” Warrick said. “You wrap that around the integrity of a Lincoln and maybe young people will be inspired and think: ‘Is that what we used to look like in this country?’ ”
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