He painted stories
Rockwell was the most outstanding illustrator of his time. He had no equal in the selection of evocative details or the skill at rendering them. The big broom for sweeping up the hair clippings, the bench for waiting customers, the old stove with its pipe through the room, the little crack in the corner of the window—each of them is a call to the memory of anyone who lived in America at the time. Each is a shot that goes home.
Sometimes, as he got older, he stood up for national causes:
The young soldier is home from the war. He is in uniform, maybe he’s come from a parade or a hometown tribute and has stopped in to see his friends at the neighborhood garage. His picture from the newspaper is up on the wall—he’s a hero.
The handshakes and little welcome jokes are over and his enemy flag trophy has been passed around. Now he has begun to answer their questions and to quietly tell them how it was. He doesn’t look like a braggart or a teller of tales. With his report he has awed his friends to silence.
The men and the boys are each so familiar and their gestures so “right” that it might seem you are recalling such a conversation rather than seeing it for the first time. Rockwell’s depiction of the garage is as true as that of his men. The workbench, the girlie calendar, the tools, the grease marks and other details—they evoke a sort of “ideal” garage, at least the one that existed in the America of the twentieth century. With a reconstruction of the setting, the men, and the mood Rockwell has as good as told the soldier’s war story. It is an epic scene. No one has ever done it better.
There was never a painter who had such a wide, loving, group of viewers. They were the whole of America. His paintings came on the covers of one of the most popular magazines in America for more than a generation. Delivery boys tossed them onto porches from their bikes every month. They lay on coffee tables in homes and doctors’ waiting rooms everywhere. You couldn’t miss them. No paintings were ever looked at and thought about by so many people.
They were full of details so familiar it seemed Rockwell spoke of one’s own family and neighborhood. In fact, he sang the neighborhood well-being and morality of America. If the aim of an artist is to make people feel at home in their world, he achieved it like no one at the time. While college kids were reading Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, their parents and grandparents were smiling at the covers of The Saturday Evening Post and feeling that the world, their world, was right and good.
Remember how “we” all used to say grace before meals?
Even in restaurants and cafeterias people stopped talking when the food was brought, and bowed their heads to pray. But the practice was going out by the time Rockwell recorded it. The young men at the other end of the table are so surprised they can’t keep from staring. Even the middle-aged man who stands behind them, and the comfortable fellow with his cigar and newspaper, have paused to look. None of them seems critical, just fascinated.
But Rockwell was best known for his humor.
This is a little skit.
We catch Norman at work. He has hurriedly set himself up in the living-room and improvised everything, having gotten a sudden inspiration, probably while looking through that book of masterpieces on the chair. He has clipped pictures of his favorite portraits to the canvas to remind himself to put into his portrait the psychological depth of Rembrandt, the color and vividness of Van Gogh, the lordliness of Dürer, and the new freedom and originality of a Cubistic painting.
The canvas came down from the attic and there wasn’t even time to blow the dust off before he started to copy one of his little sketches.
The eagle mirror, balanced so dangerously on a chair, is from the entrance hall. A self-portrait is not easy, especially for the artist who is near-sighted and needs another pair of glasses for far. Every time he glances at the mirror he needs the other pair. And since neither will be included in his portrait, he has to do some guesswork around the eyes.
He absent-mindedly set down his drink on the book, which threatens to close and tip it over. To judge by all the matches on the floor, his pipe went out half a dozen times; and he is so careless about dropping them that he hasn’t noticed the smoke rising from the waste-paper basket.
He called this a triple portrait but there are four if you include the character sketch or yarn he tells about himself.
Maybe in that book of masterpieces he saw this Vermeer.
He used photos
Rockwell selected very carefully the objects that fitted the setting of his story. He didn’t rely on his memory to depict them. He copied. Yet, though realistic, his things don’t look copied. His people either. That was his genius. See how he used photos and transformed each of the “real” people into the more lively figures of his paintings.