Norman Rockwell Revisited

In pre-television times, Americans got their images from the printed page, where they could linger over them as long as they wanted. For both sentimental impact and delicious detail, there was no printed-page artist like Norman Rockwell. From 1916 to 1963 his homespun illustrations of heartwarming moments in everyday life graced the covers of 322 issues of The Saturday Evening Post. In 1943, prints of Rockwell's patriotic "Four Freedoms" paintings were bought by--and this is not a typo--25 million people. So why has it taken until now for somebody to mount a retrospective as comprehensive as "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People," at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta through Jan. 30? (It then embarks on a six-stop tour culminating at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2001.)

The first thing you need to know about Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) is that his paintings were intended primarily for reproduction. Rockwell's art is illustration; museums of fine arts don't usually show illustration. The second thing you already know is that Rockwell has been anathema to the art world--and not solely because he stood under the covered bridge of small-town realism while the interstate of abstract modern art roared through the big cities. Conservative highbrows couldn't abide him, either. The late John Canaday of The New York Times called Rockwell "the Rembrandt of Punkin' Crick." Finally, as art critic Dave Hickey says, "Rockwell is the only painter in America who depicts bourgeois mercantile society without inflection. He just paints it." Most curators figure part of any serious artist's job is to rake the squarer classes over the coals.

Rockwell is memorialized in his own museum in the town where he spent the final 25 years of his life, Stockbridge, Mass. Just as the Norman Rockwell Museum was thinking "national tour," an official at the High who once modeled for Rockwell suggested to director Ned Rifkin that the two museums cooperate on a retrospective. Rifkin says, "I thought I'd be laughed out of town by my art-world friends. But then Hickey and Robert Rosenblum [a curator at the Guggenheim] said it's OK--this is pluralism!" It's also postmodernism, which just loves the way sentimental academic art punctures the balloon of pretentious modern art.

Rockwell once said, "Boys batting flies on vacant lots; little girls playing jacks on the front steps; old men plodding home at twilight, umbrellas in hand--all these things arouse feelings in me." "Feelings" meant a desire to paint such warm and fuzzy stereotypes, and Rockwell's undeniable talent made these characters real right down to the stitching in their coats. No wonder he's collected by H. Ross Perot and Steven Spielberg. And it's not surprising that as we're bombarded with relentless techno-worship and cybervulgarity, the record auction price for a soothing Rockwell original recently reached $937,500.

The funny thing is, Rockwell wasn't the cracker-barrel philosopher straight out of "It's a Wonderful Life" we might imagine. He was a New York City kid whose mother, the catalog says, was a "self-proclaimed invalid." He dropped out of high school to study art, and simply outworked the competition from the beginning of his career (teenage art director for the Scouting magazine Boy's Life) to the end. Rockwell even journeyed to Paris in the '20s to learn what he could from modern art. (He tried cubism, and couldn't do it.) Rockwell also married three times, each bride a woman who'd been a schoolteacher. This fact--and just about every image he ever painted--indicate Rockwell's deepest drive was to earn a pat on the head from the authorities.

But the man had a cantankerously liberal side. His renowned civil-rights picture, "The Problem We All Live With" (1964), was painted when much of his constituency still thought schools ought to be run the way the locals wanted, constitutional quibbles or not. And during the Vietnam War he snapped to a reporter, "I don't think we're helping the Vietnamese to live better lives, do you?" For the most part, however, The Saturday Evening Post and its most famous illustrator stayed far away from the barricades of social justice. History professor Neil Harris even writes in the catalog that there's a "faint association of the poster-like good looks and rural charms dominating Rockwell's pictures with images favored by Nazi (and Soviet) information engineers." In other words, there's nothing intrinsically American or democratic about Rockwell's technique; it's merely a tool that has been applied to some pretty unsalutary causes.

Rockwell hit his popular peak just as the graphic culture of which he was so much a part--detailed magazine illustrations, patriotic posters, simple, direct package design--was going out of style. His best period--when his pictures were more subtle than editorial cartoons, and fully furnished from edge to edge--was relatively brief: from the mid-1940s to the late '50s. The decline began when Rockwell set aside genre scenes in favor of honorific portraits of Ike and JFK. We could see their faces well enough, thank you, on television. It was television, not modern art, that did Rockwell in. The paradox of the High's retrospective is that, like modern art, Rockwell now must be so exhaustingly explained. The show's catalog enlists 15 essayists, ranging from a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to a psychiatrist, to make its case. Our advice is to see the show and merely sample the array of justifying essays. Nobody's likely to give Rockwell the Rembrandt treatment again soon.