Norman Rockwell: Artist or Illustrator?

Freedom From Want

Freedom From Want

Norman Rockwell doesn’t have paintings at the Met or the MoMA.  Many in the art community refer to him, not as a painter or artist, but dysphemistically as an illustrator.  Yet whilst the likes of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko hang on the walls of major galleries, Rockwell’s paintings are the ones that America knows best.  Though many art elitists might consider Rockwell’s work kitschy or commercial, it remains the work that is most accessible and relatable and, as time passes, Rockwell will likely be the American artist who is studied most of the American painters from his era.  Rockwell’s creations may appear base or common to some, but they are carefully crafted narratives that lampoon, satirize and catalog American life.  Had Rockwell lived in the 18th century, he would have been seen as a talent that rivaled William Hogarth, but having painted in the 20th century, he has been dismissed as an illustrator.  Though his work may not have seemed to outwardly challenge conventions with obtuse multiforms, as Rothko’s did, or with eccentric painting styles such as the ‘drip’ technique, like Pollock did, his work did provide relatable and accessible social commentary whilst simultaneously challenging many conventions.

 

 

Trimming the Tree

Trimming the Tree

Rockwell did play up clichéd American ideals which bordered on propaganda in paintings like Freedom From Want, which feature a picturesque family setting where everybody is all smiles and an ample turkey is being set upon the table.  There is no evidence of abuse.  No drunken uncle.  There is no hint of unemployment or addiction.  This, though, was not Rockwell’s only presentation of the American holiday experience, and it is not a painting of what is, but rather, what should be.  Adversely, Trimming the Tree is very much a descriptive approach that challenges notions of the idealized Christmas setting and contrasts them with a more sincere imagining.  The scene is hardly picturesque.  The image depicts a couple placing a star atop their Christmas tree.  The needles of the tree are a few as the hairs upon the husband’s head, which isn’t nearly as plentiful as the stomach the man is sporting.  A well-built husband with thick dark hair would have been idyllic, and ideally he would have been tall enough to put a star atop a tree without needing a ladder to do it.  Instead, this stout man is leaned over the ladder, his wife pulling him back by the belt to prevent him from toppling over and the tree looks more like a skeleton than the lush Douglas firs that populate so many Christmas films.  Rockwell did have an idea of what freedom from want should look like, but even at the time of year when America was celebrating consumerism, he was careful to note, even if it be lightheartedly, that not everybody lived the idyllic American life.  Realty and romance do not always go hand in hand.

 

Sales Girl: X-Mas Eve

Sales Girl: X-Mas Eve

Tired Sales Girl, X-Mas Eve likewise critiques American culture.  Though the holidays, as depicted in Freedom From Want are meant to be a time to be with family, we see in Tired Sales Girl a young woman who must work on Christmas Eve.  There is no sense, here, of religious duty, and there is an absence of family.  During a time when most are resting, she is worked to the point of exhaustion.  That which is absent in the painting is the most important part of the commentary.  The title is Tired Sale Girl, X-Mas Eve, not Christmas Eve.  Though a religious holiday, it has been transformed into a commercial holiday.  There is nothing in the image to suggest that it is Christmas.  There are toys littered in the background, but no Christmas tree or nativity scene.  The holiday, as depicted here, is not a religious holiday, but a commercial one.  Working-class people do not get to celebrate it, and the absence of family and religion seem to demonstrate that the purpose of the holiday is utterly lost in American culture.  Though perhaps comical at first glance, the image is utterly depressing when considered carefully.

 

 

The Tattooist

The Tattooist

The Four Freedoms was a series of paintings which were meant to gather support for the war, but Rockwell was careful to illustrate that our romantic notions of war did not always come to life in reality.  Rockwell’s The Tattooist is outwardly comical upon first glance, but the implications go a little deeper than a wholesome chuckle.  The painting features a tattoo artist who is working on the arm of a naval officer.  The arm is loaded with seven names, six of whom are crossed out with the seventh being added.  Notions abound about sailors having mistresses at every port, but this painting turns that cliché upside down.  The sailor is not interested in having one woman at every port.  He wants one woman.  However, it seems that he is unable to maintain a relationship and though he is eagerly optimistic and quick to trust, the women do not last long.  The reasons for this are unclear, but one might assume that being a naval officer, his duties impede the development of his romantic relationships.  This not only speaks to the loneliness of the men and the lack of support from civilians at home, but it also forces the viewer to consider the ramifications of that.  A person needs affections, and so the other, darker, conceptions of sailors comes to mind.  The frequenting of the gals on 7th avenue?  He might declare that there were times when he was so lonesome he took some comfort there, which would in turn facilitate the exploitation of working-class women.  This lack of sincere human connection may seem farcical at first, but the implications are dark.

 

Homecoming G.I.

Homecoming G.I.

Homecoming G.I. does little to suggest that Rockwell sought to glorify war, even when he was trying to gather support for the troops.  The painting feature a soldier with his back to the viewer, his family crawling out the back door of a tenement slum, overjoyed with excitement to see him.  What we’d more typically see is a beautiful woman running down the platform of a train station, arms spread wide in anticipation of a hug that will lift her off her feet.  This is not what Rockwell paints.  There is no white picket fence, or even a house.  It is a tenement slum.  An armada of children are running out the door to greet him, whilst neighbourhood children are climbing up the telephone trees and sewage pipes that run along the side of the buildings.  The scene suggests that there are no parks for them to play with.  There is a beautiful young girl in the image, but it is more likely his sister than a lover as she shares the same hair colour as the children running to meet him, who we are to assume are his younger siblings.  The rickety roof about the back porch is in disarray and under repair, the stone walls seem to be on the verge of crumbling, and there is dirt littered about the ground.  This is the antithesis of the romantic pastoral.  Rockwell depicts the working class or destitute as the ones who are impacted by the war, not the folks in the white picket fences.  Whilst some might suggest that Rockwell painted kitsch, such a dark presentation of American life hardly seems comparable with the likes of Anne Geddes to me.

 

The Problem We All Live With

The Problem We All Live With

In 1964, a year after Rockwell ended his very profitable relationship with The Saturday Evening Post due to restraints the put on his artistic expression (you see, Rockwell wasn’t entirely in it for the money), Rockwell released a centerfold in Look magazine.  The painting was title The Problem We All Live With.  The narrative is clear.  Ruby Bridges, a six-year-old girl with African heritage, is walking to school during the desegregation period.  She is being escorted by four white men, deputy marshals, and there is a pejorative word scrawled across the wall she is walking past.  A tomato is smashed against the wall, and the letter ‘KKK’ are visible.  Some might suggest that the painting is obvious.  Too overt.  That Rockwell was painting what is already evident.  These things may be true, but it was an image that America needed to see.  They needed to have their idyllic illustrator to shatter their comfort zones.  Rockwell have become synonymous with a romanticized American image.  To have a Norman Rockwell painting that looked like this was the kind of jolt the nation needed.  The title of the work is especially powerful because in calls upon everybody to adopt the issue of segregation and recognize it as a problem.  The fact that Rockwell was willing to part ways with The Saturday Evening Post so that he could paint this work just made it that much more important.

 

Negro In the Suburbs

Negro In the Suburbs

Negro in the Suburbs is another painting touching on desegregation, though it is a little more Rockwellian than The Problem We All Live With.  It features two children of colour standing across from three white children.  We see that the children are eager to explore and do not exude the prejudices of their parents, demonstrating that such division are not innate or natural, but learned. The children of colour as well dressed, presenting them as affluent and equal in every respect.  There is a focus on what is common, not on what is different.  Both children have pets with them: the new neighbours a white cat, and neighbourhood children have a black dog.  This shows that each of the children have a fondness for something associate with the colour of the ‘other’ children, bridging a gap.  Two of the boys standing across from each other also have baseball gloves behind their backs, demonstrating that they both share a love of baseball.  This not only links them together through common interests, but links them with all Americans as baseball was considered America’s pastime.  The painting, though perhaps a little kitschy, is tentatively optimistic about the future and suggests the need for people with different skin tones to look past the colour of their skin.

 

Southern Justice

Southern Justice

Southern Justice is perhaps the starkest departure from the Rockwellian tradition.  The painting is a night time scene.  A young man of colour is hanging off the arms of a white man, blood stains on his shirt, whilst another white man lies beaten on the ground.  He is presumably dead.  Shadows approach.  The image is ominous and utterly lacks the optimism of Negro in the Suburbs.  The painting was based on the killing of three civil rights workers who were down south ensuring that voters of colour were able to vote.  The painting highlights the tragedy and forces it into the American psyche and thhe work is as impressive a social commentary as Hogarth’s Gin LaneAgain, it may seem obvious and evident, but adopting such a portentous image and transposing it into a Norman Rockwell painting, challenges Rockwell’s audience, which was accustomed to romanticizing the American dream, and forces them to examine the culture and society that they were a part of.  Many Modernist, Post-Modernist and Pre-Post-Post-Post-Modernists might scoff at Rockwell’s work as too overt and not obtuse enough.  Though it may be base or common, the forward thinking ideas that Rockwell hoped to promote needed to be communicated to the masses.  Paintings by Pollack were not going to shatter the romantic notions held by factory workers in the suburbs and force them to confront with the oppression of segregation and Jim Crow Laws.  A Rothko was not going to instil a farmer in the Midwest with empathy for people who skin tone happened to be darker than their own.  Rockwell’s paintings were important because it could do these things.

 

 

Triple Self-Portrait

Triple Self-Portrait

For those Modern and Post-Modern artists who failed to see the value in Rockwell’s work, Rockwell had his own way of addressing them, perhaps most famously in Triple Self-Portrait.  In the piece Rockwell create a masterpiece of Post-Modern work.  He invited the viewer into the process, allowing them to become part of the painting.  Rockwell himself, is looking at a painting within the painting, as well as his reflection in the mirror.  This trick, in and of itself, is perhaps unoriginal.  It is not unlike writing a poem about writing a poem (a tactic employed many Modernist and Post-Modern poets).  The images which Rockwell has clipped to the side of his canvas are perhaps the most important part of the painting.  Self-portraits by Rembrandt, van Gogh and Picasso are all present, demonstrating that Rockwell draws influences from the classics, Modernists and Post-Modernists respectively.  Each of the images are reproduced in a fashion that accurately imitates the styles employed by each of the painters, illustrating that Rockwell could, if he so desired, re-create Modernist and Post-Modernist approaches in his, and that he could easily navigate the themes present in Modernist and Post-Modernist works.  The title, Triple Self-Portrait, is misleading.  There are actually eight images meant to depict Rockwell on the canvas: his mirror image, his painted image, his actual person, and five small drawings tacked to the top left corner of the canvas.  Beside those eight self-portraits, there are four others by other artists.

 

 

Art Connoisseur.

Art Connoisseur.

Art Connoisseur is another of Rockwell’s paintings that manages to combine the Rockwellian illustrative approach with his Post-Modern sensibilities.  The painting depicts a man standing before a painting that is not dissimilar to a Pollack.  Rockwell actually employed Pollack’s ‘drip’ technique when composing the painting, and the framed it within an illustrative work, demonstrating Post-Modern methods such as appropriation and pastiche.  The juxtaposition suggests that Rockwell’s work is on a par with the likes of Pollack, and that the works of Pollack are a worthy subject, diplomatically praising the works of Modernist and Post-Modernists whilst defending his own work against them.  This was not the only ‘gallery painting Rockwell did, as Picture Hanger and Art Critic also feature paintings within paintings inside of a gallery.  One, the working-class maintenance man is moving a frame, his face standing in place of the painting and projecting the working class as the subject of fine art.  This was reflective of Rockwell’s own approach, and likely was meant to criticize the lack of representation the working class had in galleries, noting, ironically, that without the working class, the building likely wouldn’t function.  Art Critic is more farcical, depicting a man with brush in hand, touching up a masterpiece on the wall.  Perhaps this was Rockwell’s way of diluting the power of his critics, noting that even those who have found homes in prestigious galleries are still the subject of criticism.  These Modern and Post-Modern approaches that Rockwell employs all demonstrate that Rockwell’s work was more than illustration, they were on a par, intellectually and conceptually, with anything going on in the Modern and Post-Modern worlds of painting.

 

Art Critic

Art Critic

When examining Rockwell’s oeuvre, it is clear that even though his methods were not as innovative as some of the Modernist and Post-Modernist artists of the 20th century, his concepts and ideas were as inventive as the methods and content of painters like Pollack and Rothko.  His social commentary, though often puerile on the surface, was as sharp a piece of satire as anything printed by Hogarth or any word written by Jonathan Swift.  He embraced American romanticism optimistically, but was sure to dilute it with a dose of criticism.  Perhaps most importantly, he created work that promoted forward thinking social ideas and framed them in a manner that made them accessible to the American public.  His work is clearly as deserving of praise as any piece in the Met or the MoMA and deserves to hang alongside the works of his more esoteric contemporaries.  Who knows, attendance might even go up at the galleries once they let Rockwell in.

 

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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Comments

  1. “Homecoming G.I. does little to suggest that Rockwell sought to glorify war, even when he was trying to gather support for the troops.”

    That is not what he is saying. Perhaps it is difficult to understand because so few civilians understand, and many more try to make it political (from their POV, by the way). They may indeed have it rough, yet, that mother with her outstretched arms is FAR happier than the richest woman living in the biggest mansion or driving the nicest car- her first baby boy is back home. Oh, and that girl on the left? That is indeed his “sweetheart.”

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