Norman Rockwell: Beyond an Illustrator

Norman Rockwell's Triple Portrait
Norman Rockwell’s Triple Portrait
Earlier this month, the late and great Norman Rockwell once again made the headlines. His famous painting, “Saying Grace” sold for a record $46 million dollars. Sotheby’s Auction said the sale was the highest paid for an American Painter. Not bad for an illustrator who specialized in magazine covers huh? Wait – illustrator? Is that what we’re calling Norman Rockwell? Sorry, but that label simply won’t cut it. What about “Fine Artist?” Meh, that sounds too clinical. Okay so what was he? Yeah he drew and painted, but it’s what he actually created with those paints and brushes that elevated him above his contemporaries. Norman Rockwell had the artistic hand to go with his eyes for emotional textures.

How do you know you’re looking at a Rockwell when you see one of his works? Okay forget the signature on the bottom smart guy because I’m talking about the content itself. I had the pleasure to catch an exhibit at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento this year that featured many of Rockwell’s classics. It felt like a wheel of emotions when looking into his works. There are many artists who focus on human interaction, but what is it about a Rockwell that dismisses the other figurative artists of his day as average? They all use the same color spectrum right? I mean red is red and blue is blue correct? Is it the compositions? Yes he has strong compositions, but so do most professional artists. Alright then perhaps its beyond the technical aspects of his paintings. Perhaps the genius lies in what the paintings are saying to his viewers. Rockwell tackled some strong emotions in many of his works. Sure, any artist can blend yellow and blue to make green, but Rockwell was also a master of Levity blended with a bit of introspection. He might then glaze that layer with melancholy mixed with hope and let me tell you my friend – there is no color wheel for THAT.

Norman Rockwell's
Saying Grace by Norman Rockwell
Yeah, Rockwell went well beyond the technical grace that his canvas speaks of. He was a master of fluid brush strokes and gradation of skin tones. The average untrained eye can pick up on these gifts as soon as it gazes upon his work. If you stare at his work for just a few moments, then your mind starts to absorb the messages Rockwell was conveying. You can start to feel the characters emotions in his work. An example of this is where he manages to convey the disappointment of the umpires as they wait for the rain to stop in “The Rainout,” or the poignant moment of faith displayed in an increasingly distracted world, that pushes religion into the back row of the societal bus, as interpreted by myself in “Saying Grace.” Each of his paintings are more than a scene of life, but rather a hook of emotions for which we get caught on. Once we’re caught, we don’t struggle to get free, but rather attach some of our own memories to these scenes. Somehow we can relate to an emotion in the painting; we think back to a time when we were so disappointed or we were so bold or we were so passionate. These scenes force us to rekindle that memory of ourselves we often bury and forget about as we live in a world that keeps us preoccupied seemingly every waking moment. Rockwell’s work is fuel for the imagination and a brake from the hi-speed pace of life here in the 21st century. His work is a bit of a time machine – we look and we go back. If you have the chance, then I would highly recommend you check out a Rockwell exhibit. Look at his works carefully and see whether you aren’t taken back to a time when you felt the same emotions his characters feel in his paintings. I know, for example, when I look at “The Rainout,” I go back to when I was a kid in little league and dreaded the rain outside while in class, because I knew I was supposed to have a game that evening. I just didn’t want it to rain out my game. Ah childhood…good times.
Norman Rockwell's
The Rainout by Norman Rockwell

So what was Norman Rockwell? Artist? Illustrator? Fine Artist? Painter? Yeah sure he was all of those things, but think about what his paintings convey. He wanted to remind us to remind ourselves about where we came from and how we should learn from our past, in order to live our present, on our way to a brighter future. He wanted us to learn through observations of life captured on canvas. Don’t forget your manners, be generous to your fellow man, be truthful, and be a loving member of your family; he tells us. Norman Rockwell wasn’t just an illustrator, he was a teacher. Given the declining nature of American society today, we could use a little more education in humility and selflessness. Thanks for the lessons and the memories Norman.

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