Norman Rockwell was born in 1894 and died in 1978. For almost sixty years he
worked as an illustrator. He did covers for the Saturday Evening Post, for 47
years. Those covers played a significant role in the cultural environment in
which two generations of Americans grew up.
the present text an effort is made to evaluate the work of Rockwell as an artist
and to extract, if possible, the political (or social) attitude of Rockwell from
his works and from his "autobiography" (Norman Rockwell, "My Adventures as an
Illustrator", Harry N. Abrams, Inc., N.Y., 1988).
what is an illustrator? "In those days (1910s, the period of training of
Rockwell) there wasn’t the cleavage between fine arts and illustration that
there is now (late 1950s). In art school the illustration class was just as
highly respected as the portrait or landscape classes… We thought of an
illustrator then as a recorder of history and the contemporary scene, as an
interpreter of the classics-Shakespeare, Dante, Milton," said Rockwell at the
age of his early sixties.
fine arts painter has to satisfy only himself. No outside restrictions are
imposed upon his work. The illustrator must satisfy his client as well as
himself. He must express a specific idea so that a large number of people will
understand it: and there must be no mistake as to what he is trying to convey.
fine arts painters, especially those doing "modern art", agree with the dictum
of one of their colleagues who said : "If the average person liked a painting of
mine I’d destroy it." A younger fine arts painter "enriched" this thesis by
saying : "I’m painting for myself. Who cares about the unwashed masses?"
Rockwell’s answer (as expressed in 1959) to this rather "pompous" (if not
fascist) thesis is : "Don’t artists have an obligation to humanity? The world is
falling apart. Does an artist live on an island all by himself? Is his only
obligation to express his own insides? Or does he have an obligation to help? I
think that everybody has a responsibility to everybody else." It seems that this
statement of Rockwell’s has a (rather subconscious) political thesis that goes
beyond the area of art.
(Note: Forty years later another artist, the 53-year old artist Wolfram Kastner
of Munich, Germany, expanded this idea by saying that the work of a painter
should aim to "make visible, what the people do not want to see." See Commentary
of Dec. 17, 2000, "Hitler: The (strange) Elser Case.")
the art of an illustrator can be great art can be seen in the works of N.C.
Wyeth, another American illustrator, for example his 1911 picture, "Old Pew", of
a blind man tapping down a road with his cane is great art.
seems that the critics, the professional authorities that have been "drooling"
about modern art for a century now, thought of Rockwell as "a low type,
mediocre, despicable, et cetera". Rockwell himself (in a fit of modesty or self
doubt, a common condition with him) said: "I do not really believe that my work
is despicable. If I did I’d quit. It’s not great. I know that.. I paint what I
like to paint. And, for some reason, a good part of the time it coincides with
what a lot of people like…"
Elaborating on his art Rockwell said : "The view of life I communicate in my
pictures excludes the sordid and ugly. I paint life as I would like it to be".
As an example Rockwell describes one of his pictures : "In 1951 I painted a
‘Post’ cover for the Thanksgiving issue of an old woman and a boy saying grace
in a shabby railroad restaurant. The people around them were staring, some
surprised, some puzzled, some remembering their own lost childhood, but all
respectful. If you actually saw such a scene in a railroad station, some of the
people staring at the old woman and the boy would have been respectful, some
indifferent (probably a majority), some insulting and rude, and perhaps a few
would have been angry. But I didn’t see it that way. I just naturally made the
Rockwell admits that as a boy he "was very deeply impressed and moved by
Dickens… The variety, sadness, horror, happiness, treachery, the twists and
turns of life; the sharp impressions of food, inns, horses, streets, and
people,… in Dickens shocked and delighted me. So that, I thought, is what the
world is really like. I began to look around me; I became insatiably curious. (I
still am.)". At an other point Rockwell recognizes that "You cannot do
human-interest pictures from an ivory tower (a commercial ivory tower, but an
ivory tower nevertheless). You’ve got to go out and meet people, see what
everybody’s doing… the kind of cloths people are wearing, the houses they’re
living in, what they’re talking about".
Rockwell’s opinion on modern art, the preferred art of his (professional)
critics, is quite interesting. For example his opinion on Soviet realism, as
expressed to his son Tom in 1959, is extremely "courageous": "Our modern art is
to a great extend decadent. But they (the Soviets) communicate an idealism.
Their art has a constructive viewpoint At least in terms of their own country.
Doesn’t a picture of a healthy woman worker do more good than a picture of a
woman all broken into pieces or the disordered mind of the artist?"
Sometime ago I visited what is called the "Permanent Exhibition (or something)"
at the Pompidou Center, in Paris. My companion and I entered into a room that
had 3 huge pictures of what one might call "deep abstract" art. On one of the
walls there was a huge (about 13 by 10 feet) framed canvas that was simply
painted black.. In the room at the time there was only a young African-American
couple from Manhattan. My companion and I started laughing. The young couple,
who up to that minute were serious and silent, burst into laughter themselves.
Of course, according to the "professionals, all four of us were not
sophisticated enough to understand the picture. Maybe they are right !
: By the way, if any of the readers of this Commentary visits Paris, I would
suggest that he search in the Louvre for the paintings of the Le Nain brothers
(Les freres Le Nain), French painters of the 17th century, who I think are the
closest one can get to Norman Rockwell in that century.)
Norman Rockwell thought that he was "not much on politics" and he considered
himself "not a rebel". Yet, in describing Arlington, the small town in Vermont
that he lived for sometime, he takes an anarchist position, of the Murray
Bookchin kind, that I personally think solves a few problems in anarchist
thinking ; about crime, the police, evil persons, etc.
writes : "It was like living in another world (in Arlington). A more honest one
somehow. Because almost everyone had lived in the town all his life and had
known one another since childhood… there could be little pretension. And
because farming was a hard life and yet not competitive, there was a great
neighborliness…. No robbery, for instance, had been committed in Arlington for
twenty-six years(that was 1959). If a man was an out-and-out thief his neighbors
knew it and he couldn’t live in the town. The pressures were very strong, not
toward conformity, but toward decency and honesty. A mean-tempered man soon
found himself isolated. His neighbors just wouldn’t bother with him. Oh, a man
could abuse himself-drink too much, say-but if his bad or unpleasant habits
interfered with others he didn’t last long in the town".
Rockwell’s description of the powerful upper classes is a joy. He writes: "To
start the war bond drive I went to Washington (during WWII). At the banquet that
night I sat beside a Mrs. Du Pont. She kept trying to bring me out. ‘Where do
you live, Mr.. Kent?’ she asked (she thought I was Rockwell Kent). ‘I live in
Vermont’, I said. ‘Oh, Thurman,’ Mrs. Du Pont said, turning to Assistant
Attorney General Thurman Arnold who was sitting besides her, ‘did you hear what
Mr. Kent said? The most interesting thing. He said he lives in Vermont.’ And Mr.
Arnold cast a cold, steely, crimebuster eye on Mrs. Du Pont and said nothing.
Then Mrs. Dupont turned back to me : ‘What is it like in Vermont?’ ‘It’s pretty
cold’, I said. ‘Thurman,’ she said, ‘do you know what Mr. Kent just said?’ Again
the cold eye : ‘No’. ‘He said it’s quite cold in Vermont.’ ‘Ah’, Mr. Arnold
replied gravely, leaning forward to look at me."
Although Rockwell claimed to be apolitical, he had the political integrity (and
the courage) to say about the WWII US Office of War Information : "Or, to speak
plainly, the propaganda department." Also, he had the guts to say: "I hadn’t
been particularly happy with the figures of Christ and/or Lincoln."
Rockwell had made a Portrait of Tito, when he visited Yugoslavia. That portrait
"was not published, ostensibly because of ‘technical difficulties’ but evidently
because one of the powers at the crumbling Post (magazine) had said he’d be
damned if he’d have that communist on the cover." Rockwell’s opinion about the
UN, Henry Cabot Lodge (the US delegate at the time), Wishinsky of the Soviet
Union, etc. are very political and very accurate.
Finally, Rockwell’s attitude towards religion, which he considered an "extremely
delicate subject’, obviously because he was aware of the barbarity of religious
people, is best described by the poem of "Abou Ben Adem" by Leigh Hunt that he
had learned in grammar school and used to recite, laughing at himself. Abou Ben
Adem has a vision of an angel with a book of gold, only to find out that he was
not listed in it as one "of those who love the Lord". So, "Abou spoke more low,
but cheerily still; and said, I pray thee then, Write me as one that loves his