An American Artist: Norman Rockwell
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RAY SUAREZ: What do you see when you look at a Norman Rockwell painting? Freckled, apple-cheeked children with up-turned noses? Solid, strong, nice-looking men? Pretty women, but not so pretty as to alienate the average viewer? That America of small towns and farms– is that where you live?
VISITOR: We think about the subject and not the quality of the art work. And the art work is tremendous, so they are very nice for art’s sake, and I can put up with the corniness, too. (Laughs)
VISITOR: When I thought about coming here, I thought, “I would like that to be my life.” I think his artwork is so happy. His paintings are… They just bring joy, every single one, almost, just makes me feel like a kid again.
VISITOR: I don’t consider him saccharine at all. I don’t know many people that don’t really enjoy looking at his paintings. They just… Brings a smile to your face.
RAY SUAREZ: Norman Rockwell himself said, “I’ve always wanted everybody to like my work. I could never be satisfied with just the approval of the critics. So I’ve painted pictures that didn’t disturb anybody, that I knew everyone would understand and like.” And that makes perfect sense when you consider where the artist reached his public– in mass-produced magazine covers, and advertisements. Rockwell’s images grab our attention in just a few seconds. The plot is easy to understand, instantly readable. The drama is filled with recognizable characters.
Norman Rockwell did 322 covers for the weekly magazine “The Saturday Evening Post” over nearly half a century. All of them, along with the original oils that became the covers and ads, are part of the first comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s work, since his death in 1978, now on display at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art. There are images commissioned for Boy Scout calendars and advertisements, each capturing a slice of American life.
MAUREEN HART-HENNESSEY, Curator, Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People: Rockwell had success very early in his career and I think he always knew that he was very, very, good at what he did.
RAY SUAREZ: Maureen Hart-Hennessey is the curator of “Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American people.”
MAUREEN HART-HENNESSEY: I think it probably bothered him very much that he was dismissed as being merely, or only an illustrator. He is quoted as having said that a lot of people came up to him and said, “I don’t know much about art, but I like your art.” And wishing that just once, somebody would say, “I know a lot about art, and I like your art.”
RAY SUAREZ: During his life, Rockwell didn’t get the kind of respect he sought. But today, many critics and art historians are ready to give him his due, as a skillful painter, and a chronicler of American life. Rockwell was born in 1894 in New York City. As a teenager, he left high school for art school, and started getting paid for his work before he was 20.
His work spanned most of the 20th century. His paintings asked young men to join the fight in the first world war, urged factory workers to keep the boys supplied in the second, and showed us astronauts landing on the moon in 1969. Rockwell was inspired to paint a series of patriotic images after hearing Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 state of the union address in which the President outlined what he called the four basic freedoms.
PRESIDENT FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT: The first is freedom of speech and expression everywhere in the world, the second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way everywhere in the world, the third is freedom from want, and the fourth is freedom from fear.
RAY SUAREZ: Commissioned by the Office of War Information, a propaganda arm of the U.S. Government, the paintings are among the most reproduced in history. More than one million people saw “the four freedoms” during a nationwide tour which raised $132 million in war bonds. The paintings show his real affection for common folk, his deep patriotism, and in “Freedom from Want,” perhaps his best known picture, you can see Rockwell’s mastery of light and color; the curtains, the apron, the tablecloth and the platter all in subtly different shades of white. The artistry itself presents a predicament.
Though America was torn by rapid breakneck economic and technological change, Depression and war, Rockwell used his prodigious talent in the service of business. The “Prayerful Silence,” worthy of a Flemish master, sold raisins. His use of models from his New England home towns results in an America that is virtually all white. The cities, teeming with immigrants from around the world, and their children, the suffering and desperation of the 30′s, the lives of millions of industrial workers rarely appeared. Instead, we got prom couples, cute as buttons; dogs that always seem to stay puppies; lovable old codgers, and grandmothers who look like, well, grannies — a world where it rarely rained– that is, until the later years. In 1963, Rockwell left “the Saturday Evening Post” and began work for “Look” magazine where he explored more controversial issues such as housing integration and school desegregation, as in this work, “The Problem we all Live with.”
MAUREEN HART-HENNESSEY: “The Problem we all Live with” was inspired by Rockwell’s remembering the story of ruby bridges, who is the African American girl who was the only black child sent to desegregate an all-white school in New Orleans, and this happened in 1960, and she really was tormented– literally had to run a gauntlet every day of white parents throwing things at her and yelling at her, and was accompanied to school every day by the U.S. Marshals. But there’s a real violence inherent, I think, in that scene. You can see where the tomato has been thrown at the… At the child, and the words that are scrawled on the wall behind her that it could explode at any moment– and he really captures that.
RAY SUAREZ: Most of Rockwell’s characters were real people. His neighbors were his models, as was his son, now a sculptor, Peter Rockwell.
PETER ROCKWELL, Norman Rockwell’s Son: There’s one particular picture which I’ve felt strongly about since then because he has me in it looking like the wimp I was when I was 13. And I keep looking at it and think, did I look that awful and did I have, did I actually wear those silly glasses then? There was one time when I’d posed for “The Boy in the Dining Car,” and it was the hottest day of august of 1946, I think. And the car, being in the Bronx, New York central yards, was not air-conditioned, so it was terribly hot inside. And so he finally said, look, he said, “if you’ll just pose and do it, as soon as it’s over I’ll take you to FAO Schwartz and buy you anything you want.” (Laughs)
RAY SUAREZ: Did it work?
PETER ROCKWELL: Yes, it did.
RAY SUAREZ: Curator Hart-Hennessey gives us a guided tour of one Rockwell masterpiece.
MAUREEN HART-HENNESSEY: “The Girl at the Mirror” was done for the cover of the “post” in 1954, and it’s probably one of his best-known, and I would even venture to say best-loved images. Her doll’s been thrown aside, but she’s still within arm’s reach, almost saying, “well, I’m not quite through playing with her yet.” And she has her makeup and the comb and brush very close at hand, and she has this wonderful look on her face that’s kind of a mixture of sadness and wonder. She’s questioning what will… What will come next. People very much respond to this picture because I think it does relate to that period that we’ve all gone through– those horrible, wonderful years of adolescence where one minute it’s wonderful and the next moment we just don’t know what to do.
RAY SUAREZ: The tremendous attention to detail in these canvases was all the more remarkable when you consider that virtually no one saw these paintings as paintings, only as reproductions in the flattened out, less subtly colored world of the mass-produced magazine cover or display ad. That didn’t matter to Rockwell. He took great pains for authenticity, and packed his paintings with detail.
MAUREEN HART-HENNESSEY: It’s clear that Rockwell also saw the paintings as a final in and of themselves. There are little jokes in some of the paintings. There is a painting of the baby sitter that was done for the cover of the “Post” where she has a diaper over the arm of the chair and there’s a diaper pin in it. Rockwell stuck a safety pin through the canvas. So, I think he was very conscious of the importance of the texture and … the surface of the painting as well.
RAY SUAREZ: Still, for years, Rockwell’s realistic images stood in stark contrast to the 20th century’s abstract and expressionist art, the tumult and self-examination of the artists around him. His art was displayed on newsstands, not in museums.
SPOKESMAN: I’m going to kind of put you on the spot. I’m going to ask you who is your favorite artist?
NORMAN ROCKWELL: Well, of all time? There’s no doubt. Rembrandt– yeah. I mean, he was the greatest. I mean, he… To me a Rembrandt painting, any of his paintings, they’re like a beautiful symphony. I mean, they have these great, deep notes. He understood humanity. And he’s just the greatest.
PETER ROCKWELL: For paintings he was… He was a real intellectual in the sense that he was a very rationale composer of paintings. He knew a great deal about European painting.
RAY SUAREZ: And could put his own technical prowess to work as a comment on high art. Here, a very proper museum-goer considers a very good Jackson Pollock imitation, of course painted by Norman Rockwell. An art student examines an old master, much to the delight of the lady herself, and the gentlemen in nearby paintings. His strong and confident “Rosie the Riveter,” first was painted by Michelangelo as Isaiah on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. In 1960, “The Saturday Evening Post” published a biography of the by-now very famous artist… And to illustrate the cover? Well, who else?
PETER ROCKWELL: So there’s this whole series of self-portraits going on. Each one is a different character. He’s slightly caricaturing the figure sitting there on the chair. The face in the mirror is very intense and very serious and interestingly enough you don’t see the eyes because the glasses are reflecting. That’s one of the things about the painting, you never see his eyes in the painting, because the only eyes you see are in the painting he’s painting which has this nice guy Norman Rockwell image, the pipe sticking up, the whole thing, which is quite different from the one you’re seeing here.
Then he’s got pinned up on it, he’s got a Durer’s self-portrait, a Rembrandt’s self-portrait, a Picasso self-portrait behind a woman and a Van Gogh self- portrait. Is he saying that these self- portraits that we see of theirs are really not the real them? Or is he just saying this is, you know, this is, these are my great gods. In other words, he’s thinking about self-portraiture. Yet, at the same time, he’s giving you so many different images of himself that he’s never saying who he is.
RAY SUAREZ: So, he’s asking a lot of questions and he’s not really giving any answers?
PETER ROCKWELL: Well, yes. Exactly. That’s the whole point of the painting in one level is to ask a lot of questions. The other point of the painting is to say what I paint is not reality — what I paint is a construction — because, of course, the portrait that he’s painting on there is a construction of reality.
RAY SUAREZ: “Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People” leaves Washington’s Corcoran Gallery on September 24. It then travels to San Diego, Phoenix, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and New York City between now and March, 2002.