Where Was Norman?
Wasn’t there a revolution going on in the art world in his time? What about abstract art, Cubism, Surrealism?
Those started in Europe and hadn’t yet reached “middle” America.
America participated in the wars fought in Europe but it did not take part in the revolution of ideas or values. On the contrary, it became more and more preoccupied with its purpose in the cause and progress of civilization.
It considered itself “blessed” and happy. Never much given to philosophical reflection, now it considered the value question closed and it set about work on improving the material aspects of the great country. It needed an artist to decorate that busy enterprise.
Where was the Audience?
Europe’s new art had become its own aim, its own reason for being and, in a way, its own critic. It had less and less to do with the viewer. It even seemed to snob him. Most people could not get any pleasure out of it.
Yet they wanted homey decoration, they still needed art that would speak directly to them.
See Main Street !
Rockwell was their man, their jinni. He wasn’t afflicted with agonizing doubts about art’s presentability or adequacy or good health. He set right to work. He was, after all, a jinni not from a bottle but from Main Street. He was “one of us”.
If a boy told you he wanted to be an artist, he was thinking of Norman Rockwell. Who wouldn’t like to paint like him?
Few painters were ever as gifted. His colors, his clarity, his composition, his drawing—they were all supreme. But he was no philosopher—he was rather a psychologist. He took for granted the common morality of his time. He was American the way Livy was Roman or Churchill was British. The older he got the more he contributed to the great social and political issues of his time.
See the Story !
Rockwell never wanted comparison with the revolutionaries in art. “I’m an illustrator,” he said, “not an artist.” But while most illustrators don’t invent the story they illustrate, Rockwell painted his own stories. Every detail of his picture was like the carefully chosen paragraph of a narrative. Because of the viewer’s familiarity with the objects of the painting, and their realism and appropriateness everywhere, he “saw” the story as though he were a witness to it.
Rockwell wasn’t the first to do this. In great museums there are many paintings that tell their own story and make some comment on the customs or morality of their time. This one by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805) hangs in the Louvre. It is called The Village Marriage.
The wedding takes place at the village notary’s office. A very young couple have decided to marry, perhaps feeling obliged by the girl’s pregnancy. Both their families are present and each of the members can be identified by their gestures and their proximity to their children. The lovers are much too young to begin their own life. The boy’s anguished father tries to convince him of the foolishness of what he is about to do. The girl, suffering from all the disapproval, gropes for the hand of her lover for support. She comes from a big family. Perhaps her parents offer less resistance to the proposal because of all the other mouths to feed.
The painter’s fine characterization, as well as his dramatist’s sense of tension, make this an exceptional piece of “illustration”.
Maybe no narrator-painter has made humor such an important ingredient of his stories. Even serious themes Rockwell presents in an atmosphere of humorous contradiction. A viewer smiles at nearly all his paintings. Humor is Rockwell’s hallmark and it is also Uncle Sam’s. Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, James Thurber, for example: Americans say things with a wink.
But the humor of Rockwell’s anecdotes is what, to many, disqualifies him as a serious artist. Humor was never considered the best “atmosphere” for art, which requires concentration, reflection, abstraction in the original sense. “An artist,” some would say, “does not bind himself so closely to a time, a place, and a mentality. There is too much matter-of-fact absorption with material detail in Rockwell’s world. He is like an eagle who only hops on the ground. Shouldn’t an eagle soar?”
Missing from battle?
And others might object to Rockwell’s complacency at a time when other artists were struggling with a new conception of art. To many, even in America, the traditional forms of art seemed inadequate. It was no longer considered enough for an artist to become skilled in the old techniques and to illustrate the traditional themes. Now he had to find new subject matter: he had to find a new aim, he had to decide on the very point of his work. He could take nothing for granted. Every one of his paintings was an experiment, a jump into the void. He could no longer count on his viewer to follow him, to understand. Artists spent their lives in this mostly fruitless search.
“But that was not my battle,” Rockwell might have replied. “I knew from the start what I wanted and I worked hard all my life to get it. I was one with my audience and I painted for us. Put me in the category that you want.”