I’m wondering how many people really know who Norman Rockwell was. I’m actually wondering how I knew who Normal Rockwell was. I’m sure it was from my mother because his prime time had come and gone by the time I had any sort of awareness of art.
Here’s what I did know. He painted the majority of magazine covers for the Saturday Evening Post, a publication that is still going after a tumultuous past beginning well over 200 years ago. Each cover was an artistic masterpiece, a slice of Americana, and a reflection of the times. And that’s what made a recent exhibit of his artwork take my breath away.
“I paint life as I would like it to be.”
– Norman Rockwell
I have seen many of his prints over the years. Some are quite well known but each is a work of art. Although most of his work ended up as a magazine cover, each piece was a fully scoped, planned, and painted masterpiece of incredible detail. Some of his work is so detailed, it’s hard to believe you’re not looking at a photograph.
A week or so ago, we took advantage of our NC Museum of Art membership and headed off to visit the Norman Rockwell exhibit in its final days. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a huge art fan but there was something about this exhibit that I really wanted to see. So I dragged my husband and my son along, hoping they would stay awake for it all.
Turns out we all loved it. I spent most of the exhibit looking at Saturday Evening Post covers reflecting the decades from the 1920s to the 1960s and explaining to my son all of the political undertones of the paintings. I had to explain about the Depression and war rationing and racial segregation (okay, it was a glossy explanation but it was enough to satisfy him). I was also able to let him get a glimpse of a simpler time in America when swimming in a fishing hole was a favorite summer pastime.
“The common places of America are to me the richest subjects in art. Common places never become tiresome. It is we who become tired when we cease to be curious and appreciative.”
– Norman Rockwell
Much like bloggers, Norman Rockwell found joy and meaning and entertainment in the little slices of daily life. And maybe that’s part of why I love his paintings so much. But it wasn’t just the joy in his paintings.
In addition to being overwhelmed and amazed by the sheer numbers of paintings he had done in his lifetime, I was surprised to see what a humanitarian he was. Although his body of work is considered to be conservative. if not apolitical, he commented that he wished he has taken more of a stand over the years. Particularly with racial inequality.
That sentiment culminated in one of his most powerful works that I was able to see on display, “The Problem We All Live With.”
The painting is based on the story of Ruby Bridges, the first African-American girl to attend an all-white elementary school. Rockwell focuses entirely on her and treats the U.S. Marshals accompanying her as secondary to the message. It’s beautiful and poignant and haunting all at the same time.
Seeing Rockwell’s paintings also brought back memories for me. A few decades back, I had a little slice of life in the arena of teaching. I became a 7th grade science teacher and unfortunately hated every minute of it. But when my sister gifted me with a print of “Happy Birthday Miss Jones,” I couldn’t help but smile and think of the simpler classroom days that I had romanticized in my head.
The whole exhibit was a beautiful and poignant reminder of what America used to be. It created an atmosphere of reminiscing as 60 and 70 something year old art patrons struck up conversations with me about the things they remembered. And the paintings made me feel warm and fuzzy. Maybe they’ll do the same for you.
If you can make the trek to Stockbridge, MA, you should visit the Norman Rockwell Museum. I hear it’s kind of pretty up that way anyway.