Rockwell showed life at its best in America

November 30, 1997|By Glenn McNatt

NORMAN Rockwell is not listed in "The Oxford Companion to Art," or in Janson's "History of Art," or in any of the innumerable books devoted to "serious" painting of the last 150 years.

Yet when Thanksgiving rolls around, Rockwell's indelible picture of a family gathered around the dinner table remains part of the mental furniture every American brings to the holiday season. He was, hands down, one of the best-loved painters America has produced.

Serious critics dismiss Rockwell as cornball, an illustrator rather than an artist.

And so he was: His heart was always on his sleeve, and he wasn't in the least embarrassed by his own sentimentality.

As for the distinction between art and illustration, it's just a snobby put-down. Who can take it seriously when measured against all that Rockwell managed to achieve?

Art aims to change our consciousness, while illustration mainly enhances what we already know. But Rockwell was a consummate illustrator, and his love for humanity is evident in every picture he painted.

"If you are interested in the characters you draw and understand them and love them, why, the people who see your picture are bound to feel the same way," he once said.

Rockwell drew ordinary people in everyday situations. Most of them were modeled on his friends and neighbors in the small village of Stockbridge, Mass., where he lived and worked for many years.

"Right here are the exact models I need for my purpose," he once said. "They are sincere, honest, homespun -- the types I love to paint."

Rockwell's best work was done between the Depression and the Cold War, when he produced affectionate, comforting images of an America that was innocent, untroubled and decent.

Even during the dark days of World War II, when Rockwell painted the Thanksgiving Day picture "Freedom From Want" to illustrate one of the four freedoms President Franklin D. Roosevelt had promised his countrymen the war was meant to secure, the artist's stubborn optimism belied the profoundly unsettled times in which he was living.

Most of Rockwell's World War II pictures were set on the home front. He hated the barbarism and bloodshed of war and refused to glorify it in any way. But he had a profound empathy for all those away from the battlefield caught up in the war's drama.

In "Armchair General" he painted an anxious father sitting by the radio following his son's progress with books and maps. He painted a soldier on Thanksgiving leave peeling potatoes in the kitchen while his proud mom looks on. He painted a monumental Rosie the Riveter to honor the thousands of women who went to work in factories when the men went to war.

When the war finally ended, Rockwell reported the happy homecoming. One of his most popular reunions depicts a soldier returning to the apartment building where his jubilant family and friends await him.

Rockwell was, to be sure, aware that his pictures -- most of which appeared as cover illustrations for the old Saturday Evening Post -- presented an idealized vision of the country. But he also believed that most people were basically decent, and that the world could be a better place than it was.

"Maybe as I grew up and found the world wasn't the perfectly pleasant place I had thought it to be, I unconsciously decided that if it weren't an ideal world, it should be, so I painted only the ideal aspects of it," he once said.

If faith is, as the Bible says, "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," Rockwell's art was based on faith and his canvases illustrated the recurring themes of a national morality play.

He showed us a world filled with caring people who demonstrated their caring with good deeds. He exhorted all of us to be better than we were, and, amazingly, because of his pictures, we probably are better now than we were then.

There was rarely anything preachy or doctrinaire in his visual pronouncements. They had empathy and wit, and they were executed with flair and imagination. Yet Rockwell was surprisingly modest about his talent.

"I do ordinary people in everyday situations, and that's about all I do," he once said.

On another occasion he dismissed the suggestion that his gifts somehow made him extraordinary.

"My ability was just something I had, like a bag of lemon drops," he explained. "Jarvis [his brother] could jump over three orange crates; Jack Outwater had an uncle who had seen pirates; George Dugan could wiggle his ears; I could draw."

Rockwell biographer Fred Bauer tells an old story about a teacher of catechism who asked his students one day who the saints were: "Turning toward the church's stained glass windows, which memorialized the church's holiest men and women, a young innocent responded, 'They're the people that the light shines through,' " Bauer wrote.

"Rockwell was not a saint, but through his work he gave us light -- light to see ourselves more clearly and those about us more dearly."

Pub Date: 11/30/97

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