Instead of analyzing and dissecting the symbolic aspects of opulent paintings, I have chosen to comment on Norman Rockwell’s comical and down-to-earth cover illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post.
Despite the political, societal, and cultural turbulence of the 20th Century, Rockwell embodied the wholesome, idyllic vision of American life that people wanted for themselves.
To get the technicalities out-of-the-way, Rockwell’s artwork became more elaborate and detailed over time. For example, in Sneezing Spy from October 1st, 1921, a “kid brother” is caught eavesdropping on the young couple from underneath the sofa. The edges are fuzzy so as to hide the outline that Rockwell drew in the preliminary sketch, and to capture the feeling of a true easel painting. Also, while still moderately detailed, Sneezing Spy depicts a rather conventional and familiar scenario.
On the other hand, Santa On a Train from December 28th, 1940, illustrates a clever, innovative event, in which a boy discovers the Santa Clause from Drysdale Department store out-of-costume on a modest train. By this time, Rockwell’s artwork was more detailed and took on a documentary style. The latter meaning that the abundant settings provided information on the subject’s lifestyles, and that readers could almost imagine themselves interacting with the realistic characteristics and backgrounds (Rockwell often referred to photographs to capture naturalistic poses). Additionally, he no longer designed his Post covers to look like paintings. Rather, he wanted them to look like drawings, which is clearly seen in Santa on a Train, as the initial outline is visible and the colors are more vibrant. The aforesaid was also done to ensure that the painting would copy well onto other mediums. Furthermore, in the nineteen forties, Rockwell merely transferred sketches onto canvases and heightened them with color.
Finally, Triple Self Portrait from February 13th, 1960, represents the last phase in Rockwell’s artwork. By honing a rather artificial texture and applying it to tinted drawings using the impasto (physical buildup of pigment) format, he gave the illusion of an easel painting. In Triple Self Portrait, this is especially seen in the mirror. From a less literal perspective, Rockwell’s artwork became more creative, meaningful, and involved in the late nineteen fifties and early sixties. Aside from the multi-portrait layout of the painting itself, there are smaller intricacies too, such as the miniature portraits of Rockwell, Durer, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Picasso attached to the canvas.
With Rockwell’s techniques covered, just what made him so popular and iconic with the American people?
For starters, most of Rockwell’s best covers are anecdotes. He would isolate an episode, and pack it with an abundance of significant detail so as to tacitly convey to the reader what events lead up to, and came after, the image. In essence, Rockwell could conjure up an entire life within the span of a few paintings. Due to the latter, he was not only an illustrator, but the author of many stories. In his artwork, the anecdote and the image are unanimous; they spring naturally from each other.
Rockwell’s affinity for people never seemed to waver. The utopias he painted and the viewers who admired them were considered to be the same. He portrayed Americans as they wanted to see themselves, and this is readily apparent in his works up until the late nineteen thirties (before his paintings became more complex). They do not try to be anything but conformed representations of real life happenings, delightful or affecting, that play witty adaptations on cliche`d themes (young love, growing old, etc). Rockwell brought to these stereotypes freshness and characterization while staying within society’s boundaries.
Generally speaking, in the first two decades of Rockwell’s career, the people of his miniature dramas were shown with the minimum of props necessary to convey the story, and were recognizable icons isolated from the context of the everyday world. Later on, however, he became increasingly adroit at reflecting a broader context through the versatile use of more props, and less commonplace scenarios. Moreover, he learned to use any method that would enhance the reproduction and impact of his covers. Rockwell grew less concerned with what was academically acceptable. He wanted to be known as more than a mundane easel painter.
Basically, Rockwell was a master of craft and of utilizing any means to convey his point. He was never worried of making the most obvious choices, or in organizing elements in an obvious way. While most artists affect audiences by surprising them, Rockwell impacted people by giving them exactly what they expected. While the latter sounds easy, one must keep in mind that people don’t always know what they expect until they are presented with it. To bring the obvious to life is one of the most difficult things an artist can attempt, and Rockwell was a virtuoso of this.
In summary, what makes Rockwell unique, even more so than his placement and usage of “props,” was his uncanny ability to present faces and hands. One can find in any Rockwell cover that the carefully painted faces and hands are the focal points. Occasionally, he indulged in caricature. But usually, when dealing with faces, he gave viewers a heightened naturalism that almost bordered on being cartoon-like. Rockwell was particularly talented at depicting family relationships through shared physical features–especially the small ones that often go unnoticed. Knowing all of the aforementioned, it is apparent that the little human touches make Rockwell’s paintings everlasting. Without them, his genius as a storyteller would cease to carry truth.