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.
In 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).
But, 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.
A 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.
Most 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.")
That 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.
It 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 people respectful."
Yet, 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 !
(Note : 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.
He 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 fellow-men."