Having grown up with Rockwell illustrations, I was expecting a general look at his work in American Chronicles: the Art of Norman Rockwell at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee, but was more than pleasantly surprised. The exhibit covered Rockwell over the years as a look at Twentieth Century American History. Rockwell paintings covered the politically controversial 1960’s, the 1940’s war propaganda with paintings like The Four Fears, and the paintings of a number of American Presidents. Rockwell painted Americans as we wished we were in many ways. The exhibit delves into how Rockwell created the paintings that will forever be remembered as everyday life in the United States from the 1920’s to the 1970’s.
The art world categorized Rockwell as an illustrator, not an artist for much of his life, dismissing the depth and skill of his paintings. For each painting, Rockwell relied on human models. His children and the children of his friends, appeared in many of the works. Rosie, the Riveter, of the 1940’s art was 19-year old telephone operator, Mary Doyle Keefe in Rockwell’s hometown of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The Saturday Evening Post has a wonderful article (here) about Mary, as Rosie, and how the role changed Mary’s life. The identities of many of the models are listed beside the paintings in the exhibit. Rockwell, himself appears in many of his paintings.
Deborah Solomon has written a recently published biography of Rockwell, American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell. The Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge has an interview with Solomon on the museum website (here). In an article for The New Yorker, Peter Schejeldahl talks about himself as the “hip young art critic” Solomon mentions in the book, as having “a kind word for the great artist-illustrator.” Schejeldahl’s article talks about how Rockwell’s art reflected the spirit of the times and how it gradually became accepted in the art world.
The Exhibit at the Frist is a truly moving experience. Each beautiful painting tells a story. Some stories are of family and small town life. Others are the stories of the times. Rockwell’s paintings are chronicling the momentous occasions as they occur throughout the Twentieth Century. To walk through the exhibit is to walk through those times. Rockwell paintings teach history in a way no book could. Through Rockwell’s paintings, we live that history with him.
Note: Rosie, the Riveter is not in the Frist exhibit though The Four Fears are.