The Magazine

Norman Conquest

The Man Who Illustrated America

Jul 3, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 40 • By CATESBY LEIGH
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It is a familiar, American image, that painting of a lanky, aging painter painting himself with photographic precision. Seated with his back to us, he looks at himself in a mirror, pipe dangling from his mouth, eyeglasses comically opaque. The gilded mirror-frame is crowned by an eagle with the shield of the Republic, and a Roman helmet from the painter's collection of props is perched on his easel. Self-portraits by Durer, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Picasso are pinned to a corner of his canvas. It is the portrait -- or, to be exact, the triple self-portrait -- of an old-fashioned, patriotic provincial with his eyes on a grander milieu.

Who but Norman Rockwell could paint such a picture? What other artist could have spoofed, so gently and so effectively, his own ambitions? What other artist of recent memory has been blessed with such a combination of light-heartedness, self-assurance, and talent? Talent indeed, because very few painters could have conceived of, let alone executed, this marvel of design and draftsmanship.

The public always loved Rockwell, while the critics consigned him to the kitsch pile. But the collapse of the modernist consensus in support of abstract expressionism has opened the way for a re-appraisal. Of kitsch, that is. Rockwell heads the list of cherished exemplars of "bad art." He has become a camp figure, a source of postmodern diversion, an amusing medium for enlightened sociological diagnosis of Middle America's delusions and dreams.

What remains in short supply is appreciation of Rockwell's artistry. Needless to say, his subject matter, which revolved largely around the cheerful portrayal of small-town life, had much to do with his success. But an ordinary painter wouldn't have gotten very far relying on the sentimental scenes and silly gags that were Rockwell's stock in trade. What makes his best pictures work is his redoubtable art.

Of course, there's not much point in comparing Rockwell to Cezanne or Picasso. He relied on long-standing conventions of pictorial communication that the Frenchman and the Spaniard made it their business to ignore. But if we want to judge him, as we should, by the standards those conventions impose, we have a welcome opportunity with the new exhibition of his work, on view at the Corcoran Museum in Washington until September 24. (The exhibition has already been seen in Atlanta and Chicago; from Washington it will travel to San Diego, Phoenix, Stockbridge, and New York.)

Born in 1894, Norman Rockwell spent the first nine or ten years of his life in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in New York City. His early years left him with a bad impression of the city, an impression that was reinforced by idyllic sojourns on farms where his family boarded on summer vacations. He entered art school as a teenager. Even though he regarded the golden age of book and magazine illustration as a thing of the past -- book publishers were making less use of pictures, while magazine editors were making more use of photographs -- he quickly concluded that it was in illustration his talent lay.

He was also intensely ambitious. At nineteen, he was named art editor of Boys' Life, the Boy Scout magazine; a few years later he produced the first of the 322 covers for the Saturday Evening Post he would paint over nearly half a century. Like the vast majority of artists across the ages, he produced work he thought his clientele -- the Post's readership -- would like. The competition in magazine illustration was brutal: Rockwell saw his admired and successful colleague J. C. Leyendecker dumped by the Post and the advertising agencies, and reduced to obscurity and low-grade work in his final years. Rockwell never took his popularity or his paycheck for granted.

Nor, conventional painter that he was, did he ever dispense with the fully three-dimensional modeling of his figures, or a reliance on movement, gesture, and vivid characterization. It would be very hard, in fact, to find a contemporary artist capable of portraying the human body in motion with anything like the fluidity with which Rockwell rendered the three rascals clutching their clothes and dashing past a No Swimming sign in his famous Post cover picture of 1921. Color schemes were skillfully woven into his designs, and he employed the traditional technique of underpainting his figures with a layer of monochrome paint (often Mars violet) in order to endow his pictures with a unity of tone.