Norman Rockwell’s Tea Party America Exults in London: Review

"Freedom from Want" (1943) by Norman Rockwell is on view in "Norman Rockwell's America." Source: Dulwich Picture Gallery via Bloomberg

Arguably, the two most celebrated U.S. visual artists of the 20th century were not Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock, but Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell.

In his heyday, Rockwell (1894-1978) had what every artist dreams: an audience of millions, instantly, for each new work.

For almost half a century, from 1916 to 1963, Rockwell was the cover artist at “The Saturday Evening Post.” All 323 of the Post covers he produced during those years are hung in a new exhibition, “Norman Rockwell’s America” at the Dulwich Picture Gallery together with an array of his oil paintings and studies.

At the time, this was mass-media stuff. The Post was selling to 3.3 million households at its peak in the 1940s -- then the largest magazine circulation in history, according to the exhibition catalog. Rockwell presented an image of the U.S. that’s both instantly recognizable and gloriously unfashionable.

His nation is small town, folksy, cheery, sentimental, middle class, wholesome, family orientated, heterosexual and patriotic. During World War II he produced a number of propaganda posters, including “Freedom From Want” (1943) in which grandparents place an enormous roast turkey on the family table.

All around there are smiling faces and no booze: In Rockwell’s America everyone smokes, but alcohol is seldom touched. He was also strong on Yule. There are several Father Christmases in this show, including a celebrated 1929 advertising image: “No Christmas Problem Now -- Santa With a Parker Pen.”

Tea Party Dream

It’s easy to see why some people love Rockwell, and others can’t stand his work. This, you might say, is the America that the Tea Party dreams of. Rockwell, as the critic Robert Hughes put it in “American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America,” “was homelier than apple pie, more American than the flag, gentler and more affirmative than Dad.”

Heartwarming or repulsive, is Rockwell’s painting serious art? That’s the most interesting question raised by the exhibition, and the answer is that he drives a Model T Ford right through that distinction.

In some ways, Rockwell was a throwback. His art is a continuation of 19th-century academic painting of the when-did-you-last-see-your-father type and also not-very-funny cartoons like those in Victorian magazines. He had roots in 17th-century Holland. One of his most famous Post covers, “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” turns out to be derived from Vermeer.

Photoshop Precursor

Rockwell was old-fashioned, yet also a man of his times. The covers were the product of a technological moment: when the paintings could be reproduced in high-quality cover but magazines still used plenty of hand-drawn illustration. Now, of course, photographs have replaced oil paintings on magazines. Still, Rockwell’s art was close to photo-realism, and all contemporary covers are Photoshop, which means, to some extent, redrawn.

He was mainly a commercial artist; but then Warhol started out that way, and much American art, from Pop to Jeff Koons, is interwoven with popular culture. In technique, Rockwell was close to his “serious” contemporary Edward Hopper. The difference was that Hopper emphasized the melancholy isolation of American life, Rockwell more the cozy happiness.

When you look closely, though, there are shadows in Rockwell’s work too. The lonely salesman playing cards in his hotel room in “Solitaire” (1950) is a Hopper subject. Only his funny expression and Rockwell’s far less beautiful handling of paint are different. According to the catalog, there were shadows in Rockwell’s life. His second wife was an alcoholic and both of them suffered from depression. That’s very American too: the upbeat exterior, the sadness within.

“Norman Rockwell’s America” is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, through March 27, 2011, sponsored by the Wall Street Journal Europe and Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. Information:

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. His most recent book is “Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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