Wednesday, January 19, 2011

American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell at North Carolina Museum of Art


The Problem we all Live With, 1963
A Happy New Year to all of my readers!  Already it is three weeks into the new year, time is flying!

My first post of 2011 is about an art exhibit that I was lucky enough to catch during the Christmas holidays while visiting family in Raleigh, North Carolina.  The North Carolina Museum of Art is hosting a traveling exhibition organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.  I have to admit that in the past, I didn't always have the most positive view of Rockwell's work.  In my younger, art student days, I considered his work to be cliched and corny.  A painter of Americana, I only knew about his Saturday Evening Post covers with the cute kids.  As I became older (sigh..) and more involved in children's book illustration, I realized that he was a master draftsman, and there was more to his work.  After seeing this exhibition, I have to say I have even more respect for the man and his work than I ever did before.


The traveling exhibition presents 40 of his large-scale canvases and a complete, archival set of all 323 covers he did for the Saturday Evening Post from 1916-1963.  There are also numerous smaller paintings and sketches.  A short film about his life and painting also runs continuously in the gallery.  I was surprised to see that many of the Post cover paintings are actually quite large.  Painted in oil, some of them have quite a bit of texture in the white background area.  In some paintings the figures are thinly painted in an almost sketchy manner, while in others there is thicker paint application.  His ability to depict the different facial expressions of children is quite impressive, as seen in the painting below.  Apparently Rockwell liked painting children and older adults because they were less self-conscious and less concerned about how they may be portrayed.

A Day in the Life of a Girl, 1952

Eventually, Rockwell stopped working for the Post, where he was beginning to feel constrained, and began doing covers for the politically charged Look magazine.  His most famous cover for them was The Problem we all Live With, seen at the top of this blog post.  It was his first assignment for Look, and depicts a 6-year old African-American girl being escorted to school by US Marshals.  The civil rights movement was important to Rockwell and the new political direction taken by his work surprised many.  Back when he worked for the Post, he was once told to remove an African-American figure from a painting, the explanation from his editor being that they can only be shown in a service capacity.  Rockwell complied, although he did not feel right about it.  On prejudice he has said,    

"I was born a white Protestant with some prejudices that I am continuously trying to eradicate... I am angry at unjust prejudices, in other people and myself."
        
Southern Justice, 1965

One of the last paintings in the exhibition is Southern Justice, painted for Look, for an article about three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi.  The incident became the basis for the movie Mississippi Burning.  A small room contains the large finished painting and numerous sketches.  It's hard to believe this was painted by the same man who did all the innocent Post covers, but it shows his growth artistically and politically. 

A thought that occurred to me after seeing this show was how much illustration was used at one time in American magazines.  Of course, Rockwell worked during the golden age of American Illustration.  Sometimes I wish those days would return, but I know that's wishful thinking.

American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell, will be at the North Carolina Museum of Art until January 30th.  From there it travels to the following venues:

Tacoma Art Museum, Washington: February 26, 2011-May 30, 2011
Dayton Art Institute, Ohio: November 2011 through 2012
Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, CA: November 10, 2012-February 2, 2013
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas: March 2013 through May 2013

If it comes near you, it is definitely worth seeing.