Norman Rockwell is slowly emerging from his low rank among artists of the 20th century. An “illustrator” not an artist; a producer for mass publication not for the galleries; simple and poignant not highbrow or enigmatic. These are the condescensions that Rockwell had to live with during his lifetime and even now by the majority of art historians and critics.
However, passing time and a view through a lens clarified by our own humanity is providing a fresh take on Rockwell. Are we not in need of art that springs from sentimentality about American values? Is there not a desperate call to understand the dignity of the common man? Isn’t this a time to celebrate democracy and the individual? Do we not need hope for our nation in the face of economic and international uncertainties? The engaging power of Norman Rockwell paintings are for such a time as this.
If one judges Norman Rockwell by popular appeal, he has always been wildly successful. Though derided by the art world, he was embraced by the people. Though his storyteller style was out of fashion in the modern, abstract art establishment, Rockwell was clearly understood. Rockwell wrote in 1936:
The commonplaces of America are to me the richest subjects in art. Boys batting flies on vacant lots; little girls playing jacks on the front steps; old men plodding home at twilight, umbrellas in hand — all of these things arouse feeling in me. Commonplaces never become tiresome. It is we who become tired when we cease to be curious and appreciative.
Rockwell was born in 1894 in New York. He was a prolific painter, producing over 4000 original works. It’s fitting that one of his first jobs was art editor for the Boy Scouts of America, and Rockwell’s annual contributions to the Boy Scouts’ calendars between 1925 and 1976 have earned him a permanent place in the hearts of millions. Steven Spielberg has said that Rockwell’s scouting paintings inspired him to pursue his life’s work.
Norman Rockwell was best known for his Saturday Evening Post covers, of which he painted hundreds over a period of 47 years. Of these, there are four from 1943 that are among his most famous and influential works. The Four Freedoms series, published in 1943, was inspired by president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech in which he set forth four principles for universal rights: Freedom from Want, Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Worship, and Freedom from Fear. The wartime effect of the bold statements made by these powerful paintings cannot be underestimated.
FREEDOM OF SPEECH, Norman Rockwell
Lest we forget what American life was like in the 20th century, we have Rockwell. We can remember the best of America and the worst of America, but always with benevolent affection. The everyday happenings of everyday people were the subject of most of his work, painted with accuracy and an appealing sense of tradition.