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Reassessing Rockwell

Two Vermont galleries cash in on the comeback of a “popular” American painter


With not one but two galleries devoted exclusively to the work of Norman Rockwell, Vermont could soon rank as an essential destination for the hippest art tourists.

Though little known by Vermonters themselves, both the Rutland and Arlington sites have been drawing thousands of out-of-state fans for the past several years. They come to view preserved copies of Rockwell’s famous Saturday Evening Post covers, to purchase plates or figurines based on those cornball portrayals and to savor the small-town, time-warp atmosphere of the state where the artist lived for 14 years. Vermont still abounds in the sort of imagery that accounts for Rockwell’s status as America’s most popular 20th-century artist.

And despite having died in 1978, Rockwell looks likely to extend his reign well into the 21st century. His legions of middle-brow admirers are now being augmented by art-world sophisticates eager to accept the latest verdict handed down by the taste-making establishment.

Long scorned by the most influential critics, Rockwell has lately undergone a radical reappraisal. The cultural elite no longer equates his popularity with a lack of seriousness; on the contrary, we’re now told to regard Rockwell as a complex artistic figure uniquely capable of capturing the self-image of middle-class America. His newly elevated reputation is being certified by a national touring exhibition that recently opened at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art and will climax in late 2001 at that swirling citadel of trendiness, New York’s Guggenheim.

Hype aside, there’s no doubt that Rockwell did possess enormous technical skill as well as an extraordinary knack for visual narrative. A visit to either Rutland’s Norman Rockwell Museum of Vermont or the Arlington-based Norman Rockwell Exhibit and Gift Shop will confirm at least that much.

Each presents, in an old-fashioned and rather tatty manner, framed reproductions of illustrations Rockwell produced for various magazines during his 50-year career. The Rutland display is more wide-ranging, including not only all 323 Saturday Evening Post covers but another hundred or so commissioned by Literary Digest and Country Gentleman. Examples of Rockwell’s advertising work for products such as Jell-O and Crest can be seen as well.

Neither of the Vermont galleries contains even a single original piece by Rockwell. Indeed, they’re little more than glorified gift shops, with the outlet in Rutland lacking any intrinsic connection to Rockwell, geographic or otherwise.

To view some of the oil paintings or drawings that were the basis for the mass-media images, one would usually travel to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., where he lived after leaving Vermont. Currently, however, much of the museum’s holdings are on tour as part of the “Paintings for the American People” show.

At the Arlington shrine, appropriately situated in a former Catholic church, visitors can take advantage of the advertised opportunity to have souvenirs autographed by some of Rockwell’s local models. It was in that still-quaint town midway between Bennington and Manchester that the master lived and worked from 1939 until 1953.

“Right here,” Rockwell wrote of Arlington in his autobiography, “are exactly the models needed for my purpose — the sincere, honest, homespun types! I love to paint.”

In the case of so beloved an artist, it’s difficult to single out specific works as his most celebrated. However, the “Four Freedoms” series — 25 million copies of which were sold in 1943 and later years — probably stands as his signal achievement. Included in the grouping are of the most iconic images in all of American art: the smiling family gathered around a Thanksgiving table as grandma serves the turkey (“Freedom From Want”) and the earnest orator in plaid shirt and open jacket surrounded by appreciative Town Meeting attendees (“Freedom of Speech”). The Arlington gallery lists the townspeople who modeled for both these archetypal Rockwells.

The secret to this artist’s phenomenal appeal is that he painted faces and scenes specific to places like Arlington and offered them up as emblematic of the entire country and all its people. Americans still like to imagine they live in settings and among neighbors like those depicted in Rockwell’s work.

His genius lay in an ability to create a mythical land that he himself never truly inhabited. Quite unlike the Mark Twainish boys who frolic at fishing holes in his paintings, Rockwell grew up in a boarding house on the outskirts of Harlem. A high-school dropout, he had to hustle for commissions early in his career even as he battled inner demons of depression.

Rockwell’s first marriage ended in divorce, and his second — to a woman plagued by alcoholism and suicidal impulses — was long lasting but not easy. Following her death, and late in his own life, he married a third time.

Through it all, Rockwell did not turn to the consolations of religion. While his painted world may seem to shine with God’s own light, churchgoing was never part of his personal routine.

But material comforts were available, in some abundance, from his thirties to his eighties. Rockwell nevertheless continued to accept advertising assignments well into his career because he could earn twice as much sketching for consumer-products companies as he could by composing cover art for quality magazines.

Rockwell projected a self-effacing public persona, befitting his pipe-puffing, bespectacled, professorial appearance. He seldom made grand claims for his work, resolutely referring to himself as an illustrator rather than an artist. He revered the Old Masters and — perhaps surprisingly — was in awe of Picasso’s talent.

Sober in his self-assessment, he would likely have scoffed at the hyperbolic claims now being made about his work. Rockwell surely did not see himself as “the American Vermeer” — the laughable label recently affixed by one overwrought scholar.

Most of what’s on the walls at both the Arlington and Rutland galleries can only be categorized as kitsch. Rockwell’s tableaux may be fun to look at, for a while, and they do have undeniable value as a populist, idealized chronicle of mid-20th century American life. But the shallowness of his vision, its utter lack of psychological profundity, leaves his entire oeuvre looking trite and cloying.

It makes perfect sense that Steven Spielberg is a devoted collector of Rockwell’s work: The director shares the illustrator’s sappy sensibility. Both are deft manipulators of their mass audiences’ emotions, and neither requires viewers to expend any intellectual effort.

Rockwell and Spielberg are liberals, too, each in his own way. Even though the painter’s palette had been monochromatically white when it came to happy-go-lucky American daydream.

What does today’s outbreak of Rockwell revivalism say about contemporary American culture?

On the positive side, it reflects a willingness to challenge traditional standards and longstanding assumptions. The sycophantic New York art world, which decreed that only rubes could like Rockwell, certainly deserves an occasional kick in the aesthetics.

But it’s no cause for rejoicing, either, when supposedly serious art institutions decide to give Rockwell the same treatment they would Rembrandt. “Paintings for the American People” is one of the tackiest post-modernist carnivals to hit town yet. While it may be oh-so-ironic to place Rockwell on a high-art pedestal, that ascent is actually powered by the same conservative impulse that has pushed American politics steadily rightward for the past 20 years.

Now we’re being told to look earnestly and acceptingly at a vision of an America that never was. It might seem pretty in some ways, but only airheads would want to live there.