The Sunday Review: Norman Rockwell’s America

by Sarah Ciacci

Norman Rockwell is best known as an illustrator who for more than sixty years reflected American life and its times in illustrations and paintings. But he became a household name through his magazine covers for the Saturday Evening Post.

This exhibition displays all 323 covers created between 1916 and 1963, along with illustrations and paintings for advertisements, magazines and books. Not only does the exhibition provide a comprehensive look at Rockwell’s career, it is a chronicle of twentieth century America.

His work has long been criticised adversely by art historians and critics – it is somewhat sentimental and reflects an idealised version of American life. On many levels, though, this exhibition is a fascinating opportunity not only to see Rockwell’s technical brilliance, but also his view of an ignored America.

As he put it, “I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed”. With such a huge following  – the Saturday Evening Post was selling 3m copies in the mid thirties – Rockwell helped create a sense of what it meant to be an American, at a time when the mass-produced, national magazine culture was a unifying force in that enormous country.

His covers for the Post are displayed chronologically, and follow America through world war one, the toaring twenties, the depression years, world war two, the boom of the 1950s, and the early swinging sixties.

Through these periods of transformation we see Rockwell’s beautifully executed work developing partly in response to a changing America and partly for practical reasons, as the development of four-colour printing in the 1920s leads to more colourful illustrations while changes in the layout of the cover leads to new compositions.

However, there is also continuity in his style; continuity based on his interest in the everyman and in humourously pulling out the mundane details of everyday life in a manner which allowed the Post’s readership to identify with the lanky, lean characters on the front of the magazines.

Scenes involving children reoccur constantly; scenes that we can all relate to such as delivering a first Valentine’s card, running races, discovering that Father Christmas might not exist, or sitting outside the headmaster’s office after getting into a scrap at school.

The first 1916 cover shows a young boy forced to babysit, pushing a pram while looking fairly annoyed at his friends who are off to play baseball. In many images the attention is focused on the figures, with anonymous backgrounds and often few references to twentieth century life, creating a reassuring picture of continuity for an American public which was experiencing great change. Rockwell also uses reference to the past to reinforce the theme of stability, his characters wearing slightly outdated clothing, sitting on antique furniture and living and working in ramshackle buildings.

Rockwell’s covers during times of war and hardship are of particular interest. He did not depict the horrors of war or the suffering of the depression. Instead, he showed children having fun during World War I while in the 1930s he reflected how the public distracted themselves from the grim realities by going to the movies, amusement parks or by playing cards and board games.

During world war two, he concentrated on the home front through a character called Willie Gillis, who first appeared on the cover of the October 4, 1941 edition and then on a further 10 covers. The readership followed Willie Gillis as he set off to war, played cat’s cradle with an Indian snake charmer, and back at ‘Home Sweet Home’ tucked up in bed, as well as indirectly through photographs on the bedroom wall of his sweetheart. This fictional character became so important to the American public that the Saturday Evening Post received many letters addressed to Willie Gillis.

Most famously during world war two, Rockwell created Rosie the Riveter, a woman sitting in front of the US flag wearing overalls with a sandwich in one hand and a riveting machine in her lap, in a pose taken from Michelangelo’s prophets on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Reflecting the new requirement for women to take on a whole range of previously male jobs, this image was to become an icon for the women’s liberation movement and an enduring symbol of patriotism. It also points to Rockwell’s admiration for the old masters. In his preparatory paintings for the illustrations, his skill as a draughtsman and painter is evident, much influenced by artists such as Rembrandt.

The 1950s saw a greater interest in celebrity culture and Rockwell grew increasingly dissatisfied at being asked to create covers showing portraits of celebrities and politicians. So in 1963 he moved to Look Magazine, which allowed him to develop work illustrating the civil rights and human-interest stories which now interested him.

One of the most striking images in this exhibition is a preparatory gouache of 1963, entitled The Problem we all live with – Study. It shows Ruby Bridges walking to her New Orleans elementary school on the first day of desegregation, protected by two US Marshals whose heads have been cropped, allowing us to focus on the girl. Behind her on the white wall is the stain of a tomato that has been thrown at her. This period signals a departure from Rockwell’s classically ironic and humourous subjects in order to deal with more overtly serious problems and issues in contemporary American society.

Norman Rockwell’s America allows us to follow the United States from the 1910s to the 1960s, but also gives us an opportunity to consider the work of an accomplished illustrator and painter. Rockwell’s humour and empathy for the America he saw around him resulted in thought-provoking, entertaining and sometimes searing images. They are part of what we mean by America today.

Norman Rockwell’s America is on display at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until the 27th March 2011.

Sarah Ciacci is an art educator in London.

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