I have always loved Norman Rockwell’s art.
Not only is it accessible and easily understood by anyone who views it, it also is a reflection of ourselves throughout history. Most of his paintings depicted everyday people, living ordinary lives. So all of us can relate to it!
American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell is a traveling exhibition organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I saw it at the Akron Art Museum in Akron, Ohio, where it closes on February 3, 2008. (See end of article for touring schedule)
Several of Rockwell’s well-known paintings are featured in the exhibit, including “Southern Justice,” “Girl at Mirror,” “Problem We All Live With,” and one of my favorites, “Triple Self-Portrait.”
The exhibition also includes all 323 of Rockwell’s original Saturday Evening Post covers, which averaged about one a month. In his early covers, the subject matter varies, but the coloring of the covers is all quite similar (possibly due to the printing process). In my opinion, the later covers present a more unique representation of his work, almost as if he got more creative as he got older. It was very powerful to see all of them lined up on the wall in rows. He was definitely a prolific illustrator!
While you will see the famous “Four Freedoms” series, inspired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s World War II speech, they are war bond posters, not the real thing. The originals stayed at home at the Norman Rockwell Museum, where they are always on view.
The majority of Rockwell’s work was lighthearted, and rather “folksy,” but he did tackle serious subjects in his work, particularly after he left the Saturday Evening Post and began working for Look magazine.
In the “Problem We All Live With,” Rockwell recreates a scene in 1964 when a young African-American girl attended a de-segregated school for the first time, accompanied by federal marshals. Racial slurs are scrawled across the wall behind her, which is stained from rotten tomatoes thrown in her direction.
In a related painting, “Southern Justice (Murder in Mississippi)” depicts the brutal murder of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney. This was one of my favorite parts of the exhibition, because it included many supporting archival documents that helped to tell the story of how this painting was created.
For each of his paintings, Rockwell would stage the scene with models, taking photographs from many different angles to get the lighting just right. He would often combine different elements from various photos for the final piece. The exhibition includes many of his “study shots” for “Southern Justice,” as well as many sketches and early drafts of the painting. By viewing these, as well as Rockwell’s personal research and notes about the murders, you can see how the painting evolved in his mind throughout the creative process.
The exhibition also contains letters to the editor that were written in response to this painting, some positive and some negative. Interestingly, Look magazine chose to use one of Rockwell’s final sketches instead of the finished painting.
An extremely well done “Family Guide” accompanies the exhibit, providing opportunities for children to examine Rockwell’s art on their own level. One activity asks kids to write down what they would see, smell, hear, touch, and taste if they were to walk into the scene “Checkers,” where circus performers play a game on their break from the show.
Another activity provides spaces for kids to draw out scenes from their own lives, after examining Rockwell’s “Day in the Life of a Girl.” (“Day in the Life of a Boy" was also on display)
My only complaint about the exhibition was the audio tour. I did not rent one, but like every exhibit where there is one available, there was a considerable bottle neck in front of many of the paintings as visitors hovered like zombies listening to their headsets. Granted, I was there on a busy Saturday afternoon, but I always find audio tours distracting like that. I do understand the value of that particular learning style, but I grew impatient as the people who were parked in front of a painting waited for their headsets to tell them to move.
Rockwell’s paintings have been called “nostalgic” by many, and they certainly evoke another time and place. Indeed, he is one of the greatest illustrators of the 20th century, whose life and work will live on for generations to come.
(Please visit the Norman Rockwell Museum's website at www.nrm.org for the most up to date information!)
North Carolina Museum of Art; Raleigh, North Carolina
November 6, 2010 – January 30, 2011
Tacoma Art Museum; Tacoma, Washington
February 26, 2011 – May 30 , 2011
Dayton Art Institute; Dayton, Ohio
November 12, 2011 – February 5, 2012
Winnipeg Art Gallery; Winnipeg,Canada
March 3, 2012 – May 27, 2012
Crocker Art Museum; Sacramento, California
November 10, 2012 – February 2, 2013
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art; Bentonville, Arkansas
March 7, 2013 – June 2, 2013