Norman Rockwell Brings the Nostalgia

By the third image of American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell, currently on display at Tacoma Art Museum, two things become apparent. One, Norman Rockwell is a skilled painter with an uncanny ability to tell a story with a single image. And, two, Rockwell clearly chose to use that talent to sell stuff.

And that is okay. Every artist of every age has had a patronage. Rockwell’s hero and fellow realist Rembrandt created his art at a time when the church was all powerful; fittingly much of his work was commissioned by, and sold its audience the mythology of, that church. Rockwell, on the other hand, worked throughout the mid-twentieth century, the heady days of the advertising age; fittingly his work sold its audience cereal, war bonds and magazines. TAM should be commended for embracing this fact, though it is difficult to imagine how the museum could not. Creating a commercially viable product is, as this exhaustively annotated collection makes abundantly clear, a source of both inspiration and trouble for the artist.

Rockwell is best known for creating more than 300 covers of the Saturday Evening Post, all of which are on display in this show. Impressive in their sheer number, the covers create a populace of stock characters from a hallucinatory dream of an idealized twentieth century America. Here are heroes, curious kids, happy families, wise elders, and young couples in love all doing exactly what we expect them to do. Yet, despite the fact that any critically minded American must recognize that Rockwell’s creations are fantasy, it is difficult not to search within the lines of his characters’ faces, in their posture, in their dress, for clues as to who they are and what they are thinking. This is what makes the dozens of original 3’x 5’ paintings of some of those covers, also on display, so compelling. Looming larger than any museum-goer likely ever imagined Rockwell’s work, the paintings invite contemplation, the details of his work even more pronounced. A fine illustrator can make a magazine cover sing, but it takes a skilled artist to make a canvas do so. To do so consistently, as Rockwell does, it takes a master.

One of the placards in the exhibit quotes Rockwell talking about his approach to these works in particular. “There was one kind of idea which I didn’t have to struggle over – the timely idea. I’d just keep my ear to the wind and, when I heard of a craze or a fad which everyone was talking about, I’d do a cover of it.” In the modern era, where we are entrenched in a twenty-four hour entertainment cycle, such a proclamation sounds quaint, obvious. At the time, though, it was inventive. Rockwell was able to help the Post sell magazine’s by presenting its American audience with a saccharin version of its current state, creating an immediate nostalgia. A testament to his master touch, that potent nostalgia has only grown stronger with time.

Despite the idealized vision Rockwell presents in so much of his work, there are some very dark threads that run through these pieces. War is perhaps the most widely recognized of his darker themes. On display here are the artist's Four Freedoms – posters he created for the war bond effort. Most definitely propaganda, the posters are still colored with the heaviness of sacrifice, rather than the thrill of battle and victory. His Uneasy Christmas in the Birthplace of Christ (1970), oddly one of the most vivid paintings in the collection, shows a more nuanced vision of conflict, which is neither self-righteous nor defeatist. It is simply real.

For Rockwell, though, the most complicated subject was clearly race. TAM gives that subject its due by bookending the exhibit with the artist's works that reflect the civil rights movement. Early in the show there is his painting for Look magazine, The Problem We All Live With (1964), which depicts first grader Ruby Bridge being escorted to her newly desegregated New Orleans public school, a tomato smashed on the wall behind her, the word “nigger” scrawled above it. By far the most powerful work in the collection, it is accompanied by a story of another of Rockwell’s paintings. Early in his career, the artist painted a black character out of a Post cover because the original image broke the magazine’s policy of only showing African Americans in service industry jobs. The very next painting in the exhibit is Boy in a Dining Car (1947), featuring a black porter waiting for a white boy to pay his check. It’s the show's most well-played positioning, shedding light on an unsettling conflict within Rockwell's body of work.

Equally effective is the capstone to the exhibit; a step-by-step annotation of the creation of Murder in Mississippi (1965), another painting Rockwell did for Look magazine. Murder is a very stark painting, depicting the lynching of three civil rights workers. Rockwell’s process is on display with the help of full documentation, including a heartbreaking letter Rockwell wrote to the magazine's art director. In the letter, the artist states that he had overworked the piece, that “all the anger that was in the sketch had gone out.” He is right. It is, sadly, one of the more ineffective works in the collection. The salesman finally discovered something he could not sell.