Norman Rockwell: American Imagist
June 5, 2010 to October 3, 2010
Norman Rockwell’s heartwarming depictions of everyday life made him the best-known and most beloved American artist of the 20th century. He lived and worked through one of the most eventful periods in this nation’s history, and his paintings vividly chronicled those times. They served as a mirror of American life, reflecting not who we really were so much as what we thought and felt—and what we wanted to be.
Norman Rockwell: American Imagist exhibits the artist’s most iconic work—the 323 Saturday Evening Post covers he created between 1916 and 1963—alongside an exceptional collection of 26 original oil paintings and studies spanning over 50 years.
Rockwell trained as a fine artist and chose illustration as a means to earn a living. He became our greatest storyteller during an age when “serious art” was neither narrative nor representational. Rockwell’s painted stories were folksy, often humorous and topical, and compelling in their message. But Rockwell was more than just a chronicler of the times. He had a genius for knowing which stories to tell and how to tell them. He instinctively selected surprising details that captured the viewer’s imagination. It has been said that a Rockwell painting does not require an explanation, caption, or title. The image speaks for itself.
Although Rockwell is associated with small-town America, he was in fact born and raised in New York City. He spent his childhood and adolescence there, with summer excursions into the country. He began drawing as a young boy and left high school at age 16 to study art full-time. His first commission came when he was only 16. The next year, he won a commission for a series of children’s books and shortly afterward was hired as art director for Boy’s Life, the Boy Scouts of America magazine. Within a few years he was selling freelance work to such magazines as Life, Literary Digest, and Country Gentleman.
Rockwell’s first commission for the prestigious Saturday Evening Post came in 1916, when he was just 22, beginning a long and fruitful relationship with the country’s oldest and most popular magazine. Readers soon came to recognize his covers and responded favorably to his charming portraits of American life. Readers followed his covers through the Depression years and World War II, when Rockwell created the Four Freedoms, a series of paintings that toured the country in an exhibition that raised $135 million for war bonds.
This exhibition includes rarely seen examples of original paintings executed for The Saturday Evening Post and others, including Runaway Boy and Clown, Volunteer Fireman, and Bridge Game, as well as studies for famous works such as Triple Self-Portrait and Shuffleton’s Barbershop. Other highlights include the charming Choir Boy Combing Hair for Easter and Threading the Needle, a humorous portrayal of a bachelor trying to mend his socks.
Although The Saturday Evening Post covers became his greatest legacy, Rockwell parted ways with the Post in 1963 and began to work for Look magazine, where he had more creative freedom. The Look illustrations included his first socially conscious work concerning civil rights, peace, education, and other issues of national concern.
Rockwell lived the last 25 years of his life with his wife Molly in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. In 1977 President Gerald Ford presented Rockwell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, citing his “vivid and affectionate portraits of our country.” On November 8, 1978, Rockwell died at the age of 84, leaving an unfinished painting on his easel.
Norman Rockwell was an American Imagist whose art captured what America was and what it is. While some critics have called his art too sentimental to be taken seriously, the fact that his work continues to resonate and find new audiences in the 21st century defies that claim. The universality of his appeal suggests that Rockwell’s real subjects were not simply “grandfathers, puppy dogs—stuff life that,” as the artist once said, but something larger, if less tangible.
This exhibition allows us to review Rockwell’s Post covers chronologically, making the stages of history and the artist’s career more recognizable and the images more poignant. The original artworks give the viewer an opportunity to see Rockwell’s accomplished technique and superb craftsmanship, which are sometimes overlooked in the more widely seen reproductions of his work. Norman Rockwell: American Imagist asserts Rockwell’s position in history as a great American artist and suggests his real and enduring subject matter was the American Spirit.
This exhibition is curated by Judy Goffman Cutler and organized by Laurence S. Cutler along with the American Illustrators Gallery, New York City and the National Museum of American Illustration, Newport, Rhode Island.