In Pictures from an Institution, Randall Jarrell’s 1956 novel of college life, the athletic and eternally youthful president of Benton College for women was a remarkable fund-raiser. He was especially successful with the alumnae in Hollywood:
President Robbins appealed to them sitting in somewhat Hawaiian swimming-shorts at the grassy verge of swimming-pools: as he looked thoughtfully into the thoughtless water he seemed to the alumnae some boyish star who, playing Tom Sawyer, fancies for the moment he is Narcissus. Not to have given him what he asked, they felt, would have been to mine the bridge that bears the train that carries the supplies of this year’s Norman Rockwell Boy Scout Calendars.
This suggests both the prestige of Norman Rockwell in the 1940s and 1950s and the contempt in which he was generally held by almost all critics. At that time, he was the most famous illustrator in America, immensely popular with readers of The Saturday Evening Post and The Ladies Home Companion. Yet no artist of any importance showed the slightest interest in his work except for Grandma Moses, whom he admired and with whom he was friends. Most of them, indeed, found it repellent, a taste for it beyond the pale of the absurd.
The present campaign being mounted in favor of Norman Rockwell is an attempt to overcome this lack of interest and this contempt. A huge Rockwell exhibition with all of his Saturday Evening Post covers and more than seventy oil paintings was shown first in Atlanta and Chicago, and is now at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington until September 24. After that it will travel to San Diego, Phoenix, and the Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge, and climax at the end of next year with a three-month installation at what was once the bastion of abstract art, the Guggenheim Museum in New York. It is accompanied by lectures entitled defensively “Norman Rockwell: What Makes Him Good?”
There is a basic myth of modernism, essential to its ideology, that all great works of art are initially repellent. It is only natural that this should give rise to the suspicion that any art which seems repellent at first is perhaps, after all, daring and provocative. In the past, however, the assimilation of a new style which was originally detested was most often the work not of critics but of the artists themselves. The critics and the public were forced to recognize that the artists had adopted the new manner, which had previously seemed incomprehensible or vulgar. But the present attempt to add Rockwell to the canon of American art is almost exclusively the work of critics. It is not the artists who have adopted Rockwell, but museum directors, curators, and writers on art.
The history of artistic taste is also, to a great extent, the history of the rehabilitation of faded and forgotten glories, once great but now despised. This, too, is not what is happening today with the work of Rockwell: those who loved and admired him have never ceased to do so. To a large extent, however, they come from a public that is not interested in any other form of modern art, but cares only for illustrations like Norman Rockwell’s. The campaign being waged now is to win over the traditional museum goer who has always been unimpressed with the immense popularity of Rockwell—has, in fact, refused even to consider him an artist.
Starting more than two centuries ago with what is called the Romantic Movement, the distinction between high art and vernacular culture came increasingly under attack. Some of the most admired developments in literature, music, and art started by staking a claim to the sublime from some genre or technique considered inferior or unworthy: William Blake’s adaptation of doggerel moral poems for children, the Songs of Innocence and Experience, is one of the first masterpieces of this kind, and the movement continued with Byron’s satirical Don Juan, Chopin’s mazurkas, the landscapes of Constable and Turner, the scenes of ordinary life of Courbet and the Impressionists, the ballets of Stravinsky, the cubist collages of Picasso and Juan Gris, the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, and the graffiti of Jean Dubuffet, to mention only a few of the works created in what were considered minor genres or debased techniques, and which not only attained the status of the major and more prestigious works, but even surpassed them. Fifty years ago, for example, university courses in nineteenth-century French literature never mentioned the boulevard farces of Eugène Labiche and Georges Feydeau: today they are considered more interesting than the pretentious contemporary poetic dramas in alexandrine verse. It is by means of such preferences for marginal forms, which place them above the more respectable, that the avant-garde crushed and finally displaced the salon and the academy.
The neglect of Rockwell was colored by a more insidious bias than the distinction between high art and illustration. A great part of his work was in the form of commercial posters. This is true not only of his Boy Scout calendars, his army recruiting posters, and his ads for Colgate toothpaste and other companies, but even of his famous Saturday Evening Post covers. Rockwell was aware (and when he forgot it for a moment, the editor made him painfully aware) that the cover had to help sell the magazine, like a book or record cover, or the packaging of soap flakes.
The prejudice against commercial art is partly egregious snobbery, like the disdain of the aristocrat for any form of making money that actually entails work; but it also proclaims not only the independent function of art, an ideal—or at least an aspiration—essential to Western culture since the Renaissance, but also the freedom of the artist to express himself without constraint—an ideal equally central even if realized for the most part by pretending that the constraints do not exist. The contempt for commercial art, in fact, was an ideal shared by the young Rockwell. In his charming memoirs dictated to his son, My Adventures as an Illustrator,1 he reminisces about his days at art school:
In those days there wasn’t the cleavage between fine arts and illustration that there is now. In art school the illustration class was just as highly respected as the portrait or landscape classes. Art Young, Charley Kuntz, and I signed our names in blood, swearing never to prostitute our art, never to do advertising jobs, never to make more than fifty dollars a week. That sounds like something only fine-arts students would do, but all three of us were dead set on being illustrators. (That oath has long since been broken….)
Rockwell retained, however, his preference for unrestrained expression when it was possible. That is why, as he remarked, he preferred to do the covers for The Saturday Evening Post than to illustrate the stories. He was free on the covers to invent his own stories. In one sense he remained an illustrator, but of his own fictions, working (as Robert Rosenblum and others have remarked) basically in the tradition of Victorian narrative genre painting. Commercial pressures remained, as they do for any artist, of course, but more severely limiting in the media that Rockwell had chosen. His account in his memoir of his calendar illustration of Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow shows what he was up against:
You remember the story: while Mrs. O’Leary was milking her cow, the cow kicked over a kerosene lantern, causing the great Chicago fire of 1871. I thought it would make a good calendar, so I painted it—rear view, the cow’s behind prominently displayed, occupying, in fact, the better part of the picture—and Brown and Bigelow published it. Unpopular? We thought no one would buy it. Turned out to be my worst failure. Not that it was a bad painting. But who wants to look at the rear end of a cow for twelve months. And that’s how long a calendar hangs on the wall.
The commercial pressures crushed some of Rockwell’s aspirations. Unhappy with being thought old-fashioned, he determined once to try a more modern approach for a Post cover, “and, by wrenching some things about and closing my eyes to others, [I] worked myself into a state of enthusiasm.” The subject of the cover was anything but provocative: old man Winter driven out by a young girl Spring. He brought it to the editor of the Post, who paced up and down before it for a long time. “Suddenly he turned about on his heel and looked at me. ‘No,’ he said. And he walked over to his desk and sat down.”
Rockwell cheered himself up by getting a “manicure, shave, haircut, shampoo, facial, shoeshine,” sold the painting to the Elks magazine, had an expensive dinner, and then, the next morning, started a new Post cover. “Lovers of modern art…,” he said, “couldn’t understand why I painted as I did.” Some years later the pressure to be contemporary built up again, and “I painted what I thought was a Post cover in the modern manner.” It was again rejected, and he burned the picture. “I don’t remember anything about it except that it wasn’t very good….”
The conditions of illustration have changed. In the nineteenth century, the pictures in books and periodicals were for the most part engraved on woodblocks. The artist usually prepared a drawing which would be either made directly on the block itself or transferred (in the second half of the century, this could be done photographically). With few exceptions, the cutting of the block would be done by a specialized craftsman. When the artist used areas of tone, the engraver took an active role in rendering these tones; but when the artist worked only with lines, the engraver had simply to respect them as exactly as possible. Gustave Doré, the most famous illustrator of his century, generally worked like that with great dramatic effect. With the development of photomechanical techniques and color printing, however, the character of illustration changed, and became much more the reproduction of a picture. When Rockwell was a student, illustration had become a branch of painting.
One of the claims made for Norman Rockwell is that the gap between high art and illustration had greatly increased with modernism and that he suffered from this. One must distinguish here between profession and the assessment of artistic merit. Daumier is frequently compared to Norman Rockwell as a major figure who was both an illustrator and a painter. But Daumier’s painting and his work as cartoonist and illustrator were entirely distinct. His work as a painter was episodic, mostly experimental, and with few exceptions only known to a small group of friends. Furthermore, Daumier’s graphic work was admired by the most advanced artists and critics of his time. Degas collected more than a thousand of his lithographs, and Baudelaire named him, along with Ingres and Delacroix, as one of the three supreme draftsmen of the age.
It is true that there is a long tradition of prominent artists producing illustrations, whether out of necessity, interest in the visual possibilities of the text, greed, or to do a favor for friends or patrons. Rubens produced models for Plantin, the great Antwerp publisher, Turner illustrated Walter Scott, and Winslow Homer, most often cited as comparable to Rockwell, worked regularly for Harper’s for many years. But these were artists for whom illustration, however abundant, was always a secondary activity, and whose dedication to painting was unquestionable.
Rockwell’s paintings, however, were his illustrations. In that sense, the paintings were not the final product: what the public saw, what made his work famous and beloved by millions of Americans, was the printed image, whether on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post, the Boy Scout calendars, or some other venue. It is clear that the evaluation of Rockwell, the aim of the current exhibition, which is made up essentially of painted canvases, is different from the assessment that would be based on a collection of reproductions. We are now asked to appreciate Rockwell as a great painter, and it is claimed that he has been unjustly ignored or condemned because of his old-fashioned, traditional technique and the popular nature of his imagery. He is now presented to us as a master in the tradition of nineteenth-century naturalism.
How good, we must ask, how interesting, was Rockwell as a painter? To be blunt, Picasso at the age of fourteen had a better command of the naturalist tradition than Rockwell ever bothered to acquire. That his work be adapted to reproduction was the commanding principle of what Rockwell learned and perfected as a painter. The first painting exhibited, Scouting with Daniel Boone of 1914 (at twenty, Rockwell had already been publishing illustrations for five years), was painted in sepia monochrome because it was to be reproduced in black and white. Later Rockwell was always conscious of the distribution of light and dark and of color accents that would transfer well to the reproduced final product. With his first Post cover, in 1916, Rockwell had acquired both his technique and his basic system of composition. The brushwork is often quite visible to give energy, but with little attention to impasto. The technique is an adaptation of standard nineteenth-century verismo, competent but undistinguished. While Rockwell had an acute sense of gesture and facial expression, his anatomical competence was limited, and even some of his most successful images show weaknesses. In No Swimming of 1921, one of his most characteristic and striking works, there is a bit of leg between those of the central figure which belongs to the boy lagging behind, but it is so shapeless that one would be hard put to say whether it is his right or left leg, and the grayish area next to it may or may not be the continuation of the wooden post holding the No Swimming sign. Such ambiguities cannot be considered a sophisticated perversion for expressive purposes as they clearly were in the work of Ingres (the leg of Thetis in Jupiter and Thetis and the elastic spine of the Grande Odalisque are notorious examples). In Rockwell, they are simply the result of negligence, disturbing only if one examines the painting with some attention, but hardly noticeable when reproduced as a Post cover.
Rockwell’s formula for composing a Post cover was set from the start and he rarely strayed from it until the 1940s: one figure or a small group (of two or three) with some props, set against a blank ground. The volume of the bodies and objects rendered through foreshortening and shading suggests a space which Rockwell can play with rather wittily as he fits it into the graphic layout of the Post’s cover. In No Swimming, for example, the top line of the frame on the Post’s cover runs behind two boys while the third boy stays inside the frame on the left—an effective adaptation of an old gimmick of “illusionistic” art. (See illustration on page 17.)
Rockwell rarely attempted any complex spatial construction. Even when he painted a room, he usually had a back wall parallel to the picture surface and mostly avoided the meeting of wall and floor or the angles of the room. This scheme is understandable in reflecting the concern of a graphic designer who wants the image to sit comfortably on the page, but it is also a symptom of his limited pictorial ambitions for anything that went beyond telling a story.
As we saw, Rockwell himself was periodically worried about his estrangement from current trends in modern art. One picture of 1936, Love Ouanga, shows an effort at pictorial effect which is unique in the exhibition. The facture is denser and more textured so that the pictorial surface has presence and a certain amount of resistance. The tonal modulations for once suggest that air circulates between the figures. This is a painting that can best be placed, perhaps, in the tradition of Eastman Johnson and has affinities with the Ashcan School. But it remained an isolated experiment.
The genius of Rockwell is elsewhere. He was, like Daumier, an extremely keen observer of daily life. Daumier conveyed the vividness and originality of his vision through the expressiveness of the drawn line which the lithographic process transmitted unaltered to the readers of Charivari and other periodicals. But Rockwell’s genius was cinematic rather than graphic. And in that he is comparable to Charlie Chaplin rather than to Daumier. We know that Chaplin would shoot the same scene innumerable times, in a way that seemed obsessive, until he got exactly what he wanted, and this is essential to his art. Similarly, Rockwell would fiddle endlessly with details, finding the gesture that would tell a story, give life to a scene. It is in this fastidiousness about the absolute justness of every prop and every expression, the most precise positioning of each object for maximum effect, that makes his best images so immediately striking and so unforgettable—the open mouth in the form of an O of the little boy who has just discovered that there is no Santa Claus, the cigar planted aggressively in the mouth of the makeup artist putting lipstick on Gary Cooper to prepare him for the next scene. And it is not surprising that his work should find a particular resonance today when a number of prominent artists, Jeff Hall and others, work with large-scale color photographs meticulously staged and posed.
A significant transformation in Rockwell’s Post covers took place as he became more ambitious. The change is barely noticed in the literature on the artist, except occasionally to repeat his own statement that the burning of his studio in 1943 was, after he recovered from the shock, a liberating disaster. In fact, the change occurred before, and may have more to do with World War II than the 1943 fire. But it continued after the war: some of the pictures of the late Forties and early Fifties are strong indeed. Their effect does not come through the handling of paint, but through compositional devices. Game Called Because of Rain, of 1949, shows three umpires scrutinizing the stormy sky as the first large drops are falling. Beyond the narrative, which is articulated in every detail as always with Rockwell, the picture projects something ominous. The massive presence of the umpires with their dark costumes forms one obstructive block like some strange creature with three heads at the top of the picture. It reminds one inevitably of Ben Shahn, but a Ben Shahn more powerful for being freed of his rather affected modernism. The splendid exhibition of Shahn as a photographer, currently circulating, 2 shows how much more convincing his photographs often are than the semi-abstract works based on them.
Equally expressive in its compositional devices, although more typically folksy, is Babysitter with Screaming Infant of 1947. It will soon be midnight, and no doubt the parents are supposed to be back. The poor schoolgirl, who had hoped to do her homework (geometry and American history), is perplexedly consulting a babysitting manual, trying to figure out how to appease her howling charge. In this case, Rockwell has not only provided all the usual narrative clues, but has arranged the wild array of props as a cacophony of jagged shapes and screaming colors. Here we find a successful effort at visual expression beyond storytelling.
Triple Self-Portrait of 1960 is clever and witty. It is not simply a portrait of the artist by himself but represents the process of painting a self-portrait, and in the bargain Rockwell takes the opportunity to comment on his brand of “realism” and his relation to the history of art. A sheet of preparatory drawings in different poses is tacked onto the left of the canvas. The artist represents himself from the back; the canvas he works on already has a fully worked out black-and-white drawing of his face with the pipe in his mouth, based on the central drawing of the sketch sheet.3 The artist gazes at his own reflection in a mirror propped up on a chair. The reflection we see in the mirror is similar to, but not identical with, the portrait sketched on the canvas. The artist wears glasses, and the glare of the lenses completely obliterates his gaze, while the portrait he works on is without glasses and a little younger-looking, certainly less tense than the reflection. Rockwell seems to confess that the reality of his depicted world, compelling as it may be, is in fact a make-believe.
Tacked on the upper right corner of the canvas is a series of reproductions of historical self-portraits: Dürer, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Picasso—grand company to measure oneself against, although the humorous tone of the image preserves it from megalomania. But there is a problem: “If Rockwell nodded humbly in Picasso’s direction,” as Robert Rosenblum suggests, how humbly was it? It is “most surprising,” Rosenblum observes, that Rockwell chose “a particularly difficult Picasso that mixes an idealized self-portrait in profile with an id-like female monster attacking from within” rather than something easily recognizable. This was a cover for The Saturday Evening Post. The strength of Rockwell is that he knew his public, and knew that such subtleties would be entirely lost on its readers, that most of them would not recognize the Picasso as a self-portrait at all but would consider it as pretentious humbug compared to Rockwell’s honest picture and those of the illustrious predecessors he claims. Nor does he seem to have been particularly anxious to change their minds, whatever he himself may have thought.
An intriguing feature of the picture is the helmet so prominently perched on top of the easel, crowning the painter’s portrait. A clue to its significance has been provided by Peter Rockwell, the artist’s son, who points out in the catalog that it is a “Paris fireman’s helmet”—not a military emblem, then, but part of the uniform of the “pompier,” the derisive name used by the avant-garde for academic painters. Rockwell would certainly not have expected his Post audience to catch this allusion, but he may have addressed the Rosenblums of this world: “I understand what Picasso is all about, but I am proud to be a pompier.” If this is correct, it is clever but duplicitous. It secretly says different things to different audiences; it gives a subtle hint to connoisseurs, but tells the readers of the Post only what they want to hear.
It was unfortunate that the painting The Connoisseur of 1962 could not be included in the exhibition (apparently, the owner, Steven Spielberg, would not lend it), since great claims have been made for it. Painted as a cover for the Post, it shows an impeccably dressed balding gentleman seen from the back who contemplates a large square painting clearly meant to evoke the art of Jackson Pollock. In the catalog Wanda Corn is rhapsodic in her praise of “the way [Rockwell] used his realist skills to approximate (or illustrate) Pollock’s drip style,” even if “Pollock connoisseurs who have had intimate encounters with the real thing might blanch.”
Not having seen the actual painting, we can’t possibly discuss Rockwell’s exercise in the drip style with any confidence, but even in a reproduction one can tell that it resembles Pollock only in a generic and superficial way. For instance, some of the paint has run down the vertical canvas: Pollock dripped but he did not dribble. Professor Corn cites an editorial comment printed in the Post quoting Rockwell: “If I were young now, I might paint that way myself.” Indeed, Rockwell himself does not seem to have been at all intolerant, but here again, he knew how the middlebrow readers of the Post would take it, and he deliberately played into the hands of those who would contrast the reality and soundness of his pictured world with the nonsense and lunacy of abstract art.
What distinguishes Rockwell from other famous illustrators like Arthur Rackham or Maxfield Parrish (a retrospective of the latter’s work is currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum of Art4 ) is not simply that they illustrated existing texts while he made up his own stories, but that he was a commentator on the present, on modern American society. In that sense, he can be compared to Daumier, but while Daumier was profoundly critical, Rockwell was above all complacent. Like Rockwell, Parrish perfected an idiosyncratic technique that was adapted to reproduction. While not quite as popular as Rockwell, he was certainly hugely successful. Still, the claims made on his behalf are not as disturbing as those for Rockwell, because Parrish never tried to represent the world we live in, but invites us into his fantasies. Rockwell’s art claims to deal with American life as it is actually experienced. If we believe Thomas Hoving, “These images stand firmly on their own as realistic works of art.”
By temperament, Rockwell was comfortable with commercial art: he could not, he said, deal with the sordid side of life. Although born in New York, and partly raised there, he preferred small towns. He painted ordinary people, and moved on to portraits of celebrities late in life (not at all his best work). Only certain kinds of ordinary people, however—there are no immigrants in his work and (until he took a strong position in favor of racial integration in the 1960s) no blacks, except for an occasional dining-car waiter or porter at a railway station.5 There are few manual laborers, and those few are comically caricatured. His people are postmen, soda jerks, shopkeepers, teachers, mothers, small-town lawyers, doctors, students—all white, all middle-class. From a slightly lower stratum, there are sailors and tattoo artists. The poor, when they find a place, are inevitably and obviously decent, deserving poor. The troublemakers are only naughty and they are all children, a girl with a black eye waiting to be reprimanded by the high school principal, boys caught swimming near a No Swimming notice. There are lots of children and dogs, all delightfully picturesque; but there is no crime, no suffering, and the erotic is always delicately muted. His view of America is characterized by omission.
This was his strength with the magazines for which he worked: he left out what was uncomfortable, inconvenient, disturbing. It was also what weakened so much of his art, and radically skewed his view of American life. The illustrations for Mark Twain, which are said to be much admired, are disastrous: they falsify the novels, turning Huckleberry Finn into a cute little tyke like those in early Mickey Rooney movies. The Saturday Evening Post printed distinguished work by Ring Lardner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Dos Passos, but Rockwell’s covers look like illustrations to Booth Tarkington and the more anodyne fiction of the 1920s and 1930s.
When he tried, later in life, to deal with larger issues, he paid the price for his radically selective and limited view of American life and culture. Illustrating the Four Freedoms of FDR in 1943 as propaganda posters, he portrayed “Freedom from Fear” as loving parents putting the children to bed, knowing they will be safe from bombing raids (“a rather smug idea” was Rockwell’s own comment) and “Freedom from Want” as a happy family about to eat a huge turkey on Thanksgiving. Rockwell remarked about this:
“Freedom from Want” was not very popular overseas. The Europeans sort of resented it because it wasn’t freedom from want, it was overabundance, the table was so loaded down with food.
There is a basic problem with commercial art: What is being sold and to whom? While FDR was addressing the world as well as the voters at home with his ideal of the Four Freedoms, Rockwell was selling America to middle-class Americans. Like most advertisements, the Four Freedoms posters painted an attractive and fundamentally dishonest image of the product.
This was evident with the best of the Freedom paintings, one with which Rockwell was himself more satisfied: Freedom of Speech. The picture is a New England town meeting, where a dignified, relatively mature, but still-young man, whose dress and rough hands suggest a farmer, and who resembles ideal portraits of young Abe Lincoln, is speaking while everyone else listens respectfully. This view of Freedom of Speech disturbed no one, whether in the audience portrayed in the picture or among the Post’s readers. We can feel sure that no radical views were expressed at the meeting, that nothing was said to make us question the basic decency of American society; any alien or foreign influence is remarkably absent. The product is guaranteed home-grown.
One of Rockwell’s most impressive Post covers is Girl at Mirror (March 6, 1954). Like many artists before him, but more systematically, Rockwell used photographs as models, and the photograph on which this was based is shown in the exhibition. (He did not take the photographs himself, but he was their true creator—he very carefully staged them.) A young girl dressed only in a white slip looks at herself thoughtfully in a mirror. Both photograph and picture are moving, and Rockwell followed his model closely. Nevertheless, his changes are revealing. Above all, he added props: a broken doll cast aside, a brush and comb and an open lipstick on the floor, and a magazine photo of Jane Russell in the girl’s lap.
As in nineteenth-century anecdotal painting, these props, which are intended to enrich the image’s meaning, tend to diminish it, make the emotion more shallow. The painting is, in fact, less moving than the photograph. There is poetry in the photograph, which disappears when everything is spelled out. The additional gimmicks reduce the picture to an anecdote: the girl reaching the onset of puberty wonders if makeup will give her the beauty and sophistication of a Hollywood star. Rockwell partially understood that the props mar the picture: the magazine photo of Jane Russell was a mistake, he thought. (He also bowdlerized the model, drawing the slip a little lower down over the girl’s knees, and the expression in her eyes has become slightly more knowing, more calculated.)
What Rockwell lacked was sufficient faith in the purely visual: he scattered clues over his paintings to make them more intelligible, and was unwilling to admit the emotional power of a visual form not reduced to some kind of narrative. The clues, which distract from the painted image even as they enrich it, helped sell the images to that part of the public more beguiled by the clues than by the art. He inherited this lack of faith from the nineteenth-century anecdotal genre in which he continued to work. It was precisely for this reason that modernism condemned the narrative tradition in order to allow the purely visual to speak for itself. From Manet to the modernists of the 1960s, even when there is an incipient narrative content in the picture it is generally held at arm’s length, pushed back at a distance, so that the spectator is initially forced to appreciate line and form, color, texture, and brushwork before being admitted to the narrative element. The great abstractions of the twentieth century are the end result of this faith in the visual. That is what makes the eventual exhibition in 2001 of Rockwell at the Guggenheim Museum, originally founded to consecrate this faith, so disturbing to many artists and critics, even those who still work with, and admire, figurative art.
The immediate accessibility of Rockwell’s images is part of their popular appeal and their charm for anyone. As Thomas Hoving puts it, “We can understand them in a flash.” It is also what makes them vulnerable to criticism. The claim by the promoters of the exhibition that Rockwell was the most popular artist in America is true in a sense if one takes account of all the readers of The Saturday Evening Post and all those who purchased the Boy Scout calendars and admired the Rockwell ads for the Ford Motor Company. But it seems that one of the companies that enthusiastically commissioned ads from Rockwell thought so little of the original paintings that they were thrown away. That is why many of the paintings have disappeared after being used for a publicity campaign. What the companies were buying was not so much the original work as the license to reproduce it.
Treating commercial art seriously instead of ignoring it or sneering at it is a welcome development. As we write, a new Musée de la Publicité has just opened in Paris within the Louvre building. There is no reason that our knowledge and appreciation of art should be circumscribed by a prejudice in favor of the academically respectable. But the extravagant claims being made for Rockwell—the absurd comparisons in the exhibition catalog with Vermeer and Jackson Pollock, the belief that his work is a realistic and adequate representation of American culture and life, the attempt to magnify his effective images into heroic icons—will in the end only serve to reawaken the thoughtless disdain of art lovers for his achievement. Some of the promoters of Rockwell seem to have willingly abdicated their critical faculties. Indeed, that is what Professor Robert Rosenblum recommends at the end of his eloquent and overblown plea for a reconsideration of Rockwell’s work: “To enjoy his unique genius,” he writes, “all you have to do is relax.” Right.
August 10, 2000
Abrams, 1998. ↩
Ben Shahn’s New York: The Photography of Modern Times, an exhibition at the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., June 10 through August 27, 2000; the Grey Art Gallery, New York University, October 14, 2000, through January 27, 2001; and the David and Alfred Smart Museum, University of Chicago, April 19 through June 17, 2001. The catalog, by Deborah Martin Kao, Laura Katzman, and Jenna Webster, is published by the Harvard University Art Museums and Yale University Press. The exhibition originated at Harvard’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in February. ↩
This is not, however, how Rockwell actually proceeded. He would make a fully worked out drawing on paper and then transfer only the outlines onto the canvas before he started painting. This is visible in a series of photographs of The Golden Rule from September 30, 1960, to completion on January 8, 1961, published in The Norman Rockwell Album (Doubleday, 1961), pp. 185-189. ↩
Maxfield Parrish, 1870-1966, an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, May 26 through August 6, 2000. The catalog, by Sylvia Yount, is published by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Abrams. The exhibition originated at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1999. ↩
In his illustrations for the inside matter of the Post and other magazines, blacks may appear when they are characters in the story, like Love Ouanga. ↩