Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Norman Rockwell: Greatest American Painter of All Time

Before I start, I want to acknowledge that Norman Rockwell was a painter through and through. Yes, like all master painters, he used drawing sketches as study materials for his finished paintings. The contents of this blog, however, will be dealing strictly with his paintings, and more specifically, the sentiments and themes those paintings reflected.

Born in 1894 in New York City, Rockwell wanted to become an artist at a young age. Realizing his passion for the subject, he dropped out of high school at age 16 in order to pursue professional art training. Talented and ambitious, Rockwell was offered his first official commission when he was only 15. Merely four years later, he became the art director of Boy's Life, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) publication and began to publish works for the magazine. As impressive as these early accomplishments were, Rockwell's career didn't offficially take off until 1916, when he joined the magazine that would transform the word "Rockwell" into a household name.

Rockwell was 21 years old in 1916 when he joined the Saturday Evening Post, and over the next 47 years, his production of over 300 cover paintings for the magazine catapulted him in the limelight of the American artscape. As the nation experienced numerous historical events such as World War II, Rockwell's paintings always followed suit and masterfully captured the essence of Middle America - the lives, sentiments, and aspirations of the average American under the socio-political environment at that specific time. No other artist have had as much success depicting the archetypal themes and motifs of "Americana".

After Rockwell left the Saturday Evening Post in 1963, he worked for Look magazine and painted comtemporary issues such as the civil rights movement, among others. In 1973, Rockwell established a trust, and five years later, he succumbed to emphysema. Just a year prior to his death in 1977, Rockwell received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Perhaps the greatest thing about Rockwell's paintings is how straightforward and traditional they are. Instead of experimenting with abstract and other modern art techniques that many artists of his time relied on, Rockwell relied entirely on a traditional, realistic, lifelike, but yet slightly exaggerated painting style. His figures are all realistically painted, but their expressions are often exaggerated; smiles are pushed as much as possible, and gestural movements are often over-emphasized. This slightly exaggerated way of depiction gives many of his paintings a sense of humor, imbueing otherwise mundane everyday acitivites with a dose of comedy and drama. Rockwell also painted his backgrounds, which consist of iconic American settings (in a diner, at a baseball stadium, in a house, etc.), in a similar fashion - realistic depiction with a touch of exaggeration. These iconic settings and sceneries are often filled with many more objects than one would reasonably find in their actual counterparts, but the inclusion of so much detail isn't done out of self-gratification or indulgence; instead, it seems that Rockwell really wanted to include as many iconic elements as possible in order to elicit a particularly strong sense of connection and fondness in the viewers by over-emphasizing the "Americana" feel of the particular setting.

Speaking of a sense of connection, both Rockwell's subject matter and artistic technique enable him to create paintings that the viewer can relate to. Rockwell's subjects are always middle-class Americans, and almost everything he paints belong to the idealized milieu of a middle-class lifestyle. As a result, when the average American (his intended audience) views one of his paintings, he/she sees individuals of similar socioeconomic backgrounds doing regular, everyday tasks. Undoubtedly, this creats a bond, a connection between the real viewer and the fictional subjects, who aren't really fictional since they are so closely based on real individuals and their everyday lives. The slight humor element (as a result of exaggerated facial expressions) of his paintings give them an extra layer of likeability and attractiveness by injecting senses of comedy and joy into otherwise mundane activities such as eating at a diner, waiting for a doctor in the waiting room, etc. In addition to subject matter, Rockwell's technique also play a major part in helping his paintings "reach out" and form a relationship with the viewer. Because his technique is so traditional and that everything is painted in a realistic and very life-like manner, the viewer doesn't have to navigate through an artistic labyrinth in which a substantial amount of time and energy are used to decipher and understand the technical aspects of the painting's creation. In other words, because his technique is so straight-forward, viewers don't have to struggle to understand and interpret the technical aspects of the painting; instead, they can focus exclusively on the theme and story of the painting, jumping immediately to the narrative and forming that connection with the painting's subjects. Had Rockwell used a more abstract approach, then chances are viewers would spend most of their time and energy trying to figure out what he actually painted rather than focusing on the actual subjects of the painting and the narratives behind them. In essence, Rockwell's paintings are intriguing and meaningful not because of their unique or esoteric technical quality, but because of their ability to clearly portray and slightly romanticize everyday activities that ordinary Americans could relate to. Rockwell's goal wasn't to bewilder or shock his viewers with never-before-seen techniques and artistic styles; he simply wanted to provide heart-warming and humorous narrative pieces that everyone can enjoy and connect with. That's what sets him apart from other famous artists of the time, and that's what makes him so loved and cherished by the American public.

Now let's take a look at some of Rockwell's paintings and how they illustrate theme and that sense of personal connection.

In this painting, two people are arguing with each other (presumably over political issues), and we can clearly see the slightly exaggerated and extremely emotive facial expressions on the individuals' faces. Both the male and the female arguing demonstrate highly expressive (and once again, slight exaggerated) bodily movements, and the child shows an almost-comical expression of extreme boredom . The over-emphasis on facial and physical expression/gesture create a sense of energy and humor, which enlivens an otherwise mundane scene. Also, the child's obvious boredom (and maybe even frustration) towards the adults' fervent discussion/argument brings out a narrative, showing that the characters are naturally interacting and responding to each other's actions instead of staring and acting in a staged and contrived manner. Finally, the scene painted depicts many iconic objects and features found in the typical American home of that era. We see the bird cage hanging overhead, the radio on the table, the family dog under the woman's seat, and many others that strongly evoke a sense of place and time - placing the viewers directly into the livelihoods of a typical American family and the interiors of their home.

In this painting, we see a heart-warming depiction of a young boy praying with two elderly individuals (probably his grandparents) just before a meal. This close relationship between family members and the activity of praying both strongly evoke fundamental American values and practices of the era, creating a bond between the painting subjects and the viewing public. Also note the detailed depictions of the environments (the cabinet, the window, the table cloth, the cane on the ground, etc) and how they further lend a sense of place and setting to the scene.

Like previous paintings, the two paintings above fully exhit those iconic characteristics of Rockwell's paintings - highly expressive expressions/gestures, familiar and iconic setting, and the presence of a narrative, a scene that natrually depicts a realistic, everyday action/sceneario typical for the average joe.

We've mentioned in the beginning that while most of Rockwell's paintings represent the warm and everyday occurrences of "Americana", some of his works painted in the 1960s steer away from these heart-warming narratives and instead focuses on some of American society's troubling aspects. The painting below depicts racism and the civil rights movement.

Unlike previous paintings, this solemn and depressing depiction (called the Problem We All Live With) ditches the humor, warmth, and iconic Americana setting that characterized his other works. This painting shows a group of African Americans marching in defiance and protest, and the splattered tomato on the wall along with the "N-word" clearly portray a hostile environment where these courageous individuals are being attacked and harassed as they fight for their basic civil rights. Rockwell not only idealized the positive and warm elements of American life, but also portrayed, accurately and without restraint, the dark periods of American history. He did not turn a blind eye to the negative aspects of society; instead, he chose to use his fame and skill as an artist to bring these troubling aspects to light. It is worth noting that the young girl is the only person whose face is showing. By focusing so much on this little girl, who is risking her own welfare by bravely marching with the growups, Rockwell sought to seek sympathy from the viewers by creating a scene that masterfully juxtaposes courage and vulnerability. The girl has a very stubborn and determined face without a hint of fear, even under circumstances where she is vulnerable to physical suffering (suggested by the splattered tomato). Hopefully after seeing how such a young person can have so much bravery and determination (made even more evident by her firmly clenched fist, a gesture echoed by the adults) under such a hostile environment, the viewers will be rallied up and march in support of the noble cause, which is the civil rights movement and equality for all individuals.

After showing some of Rockwell's paintings that depict typical and everyday activities (arguing and praying at the dinner table, waiting in a doctor's office, eating in a diner, etc.), it is tempting to come away with an impression that his paintings are perhaps a bit too simplistic in their depictions. That other than a straightforward narrative illustrating an everyday activity, these paintings do little else. While this is true for many of his works, labelling Rockwell's paintings as simplistic and lacking in subtlety is a grave mistake. Now, let's take a closer look at some of his most cherished paintings that are much, much more than what meets the eye.

This is perhaps one of Rockwell's most famous paintings, titled "The Homecoming Marine". In this painting, a young United States Marine is shown sitting in his father's mechanical garage/workshop, having just returned from WWII's bloody battlefields. He is holding a Japanese flag, and he surrounded by a group of individuals. The younger children are probably his siblings, while the older adults are probably his father's friends, co-workers, and/or acquaintances. The man on the right with a white shirt is most likely the Marine's father, and in the background on the wall, there is a poster with the Marine's face and the tagline "Garageman a Hero". From a stylistic and technical point of view, this painting is classic Rockwell; the lighting is soft and natural, the figures are realistically and masterfully paintings, and the whole painting illustrates a cohesive narrative - a natural interaction among individuals rather than a contrived and elaboratedly staged "photo-shoot". This color palette in this painting relies heavily on the neutral tones, which fits with the setting of a dingy and rusted mechanical garage/shop.

Given the painting's title and the fact that everyone is looking at the Marine, it is easy to come to a quick conclusion that the focus here is the young man who just returned from war. However, if one looks closely, it slowly becomes apparent that the focal point intended by Rockwell isn't the young Marine, but his father, who is sitting directly across from him. Even though everyone is looking at the Marine with a sense of awe and respect, the Marine is seemingly oblivious to their admiring stares; instead, his gaze, solemn and sincere, falls squarely on his father, whose wrinkled face shows a subtle sign of joy and pride. In a way, Rockwell is using the sincere and focused gaze of a war hero to guide the viewer's attention away from the Marine himself and onto his father, the man who raised such a terrific and patriotic son and the true hero/focus of the painting. As a returning veteran, the young Marine obviously commands a lot of respect and obedience, and therefore, viewers will subconsciously follow his stare and rest their eyes on the figure of the father. It is as if the Marine, with his reputation and admirable status, is telling and guiding the viewer to not focus on himself, but on his father who made him the excellent young man that he is today. This is a very subtle aspect of the painting, but once identified, makes an otherwise straightforward depiction full of depth, meaning, and a sense of humility and respect. The young Marine does not want the viewers to focus on himself and treat him as the hero; he wants the center of attention to be his father, the man who raised and nurtured him. In a very subtle manner, Rockwell uses the accomplishments of a young Marine to idealize and praise the man's father.

Lastly, let's take a look at Rockwell's foray into propaganda art. The four paintings above are commissioned as a government propaganda tool to rally up support for America's efforts in WWII. Rockwell, with his signature artistic style and technical prowess, painted these four works, each representing a fundamental American ideal that is worth protecting at all costs, including going to a unfathomably brutal and costly war. We'll start from the top left and go clockwise.

Freedom of Speech: In this painting, the most fundamental and iconic American value, freedom of speech, is powerfully illustrated. The painting shows a working-class man (evident from his ragged cloth) standing up among a crowd of mostly well-dressed and older gentlemen and voicing his views. The seated individuals, with their expressions of support and tolerance, are clearly respecting the man's right to voice his views, regardless of whether or not they agree with he says.

Freedom of Worship: In this painting, Americans' right to worship freely and without restrictions is conveyed via a depiction of individuals praying. However, it isn't very clear from the painting what religion that these individuals are praying under. Are they all Christians? Or are some of them Jewish and Muslims? To better convey the message that in America, ALL religious beliefs are welcomed, Rockwell probably should have explicitly shown individuals of different religious beliefs and backgrounds praying together in harmony, under one tolerant nation.

Freedom from Want: Unlike the first two freedoms, this one seems a bit odd. What does freedom FROM want mean? After looking at the painting, it becomes clear that freedom from want means that it is a fundamental American value that individuals are able to lead bountiful lives free from wanting (as a result of not having enough) the basic necessities such as food and shelter. This painting showcases a Thanksgiving dinner with a particularly large turkey cooked to perfection. This represents an abundance of food, that in America, people never have to starve and want things that are essential to survival.

Freedom from Fear: Similar to Freedom from Want, Americans should be able to live without fearing for the safety or welfare of themselves and their family members. This paintings shows a couple sending their children off to a safe and sound sleep. The calm expression of the father demonstrates that all is well with him and his beloved family. In America, people have the ability to live safely and provide a protective, nurturing environment for their children.
Of the four paintings, the Freedom from Want piece featuring a Thanksgiving feast has been parodied relentlessly (and in different mediums) in contemporary society. The following are just some of the parodies of this famous painting. Some of them are plain silly, others are quite clever, and some utilize the overabundance theme of the original painting to satirize today's grim economic circumstances.

Now, at the very end, let's talk about why I picked Rockwell and how his work influenced me and my work. Rockwell's detailed and meticulous painting style, along with his strict adherence to realism, are the primary reasons why I am so hooked to his art. I also like doing detailed works, and to me, technical proficiency and realism are extremely important; like Rockwell, I want my artworks to tell narratives that people can relate to, and in order to accomplish that, a realistic style is much more effective than a more abstract/surrealistic approach. Like Rockwell, I use live models for many of my works, and like him, I rely heavily on photo references. Below is a side by side comparison of a photograph used by Rockwell and one of his paintings that was shown earlier.

Evidently, Rockwell remains very faithful to his photo references. While for many of his pieces photo reference was used, for others, such as the famous Freedom from Want, he relied completely on actual models sitting in front of him. It is a testament to Rockwell's legendary skills that he was able to paint Freedom from Want entirely from actual people. Without incredible amount of sheer technical prowess, such a feat would be utterly impossible. I am pretty positive that I will never reach the level of expertise of Rockwell, that's why I'll always rely on photo references, not that it is a bad thing. Another element worth noting is that while Rockwell was an oil painter and that all the pieces shown here are done in oil, my prefered medium is colored pencils. So before I end this for good, I thought I'll share two of my most recent colored pencil drawings done in the spirit of Rockwell. Both pieces are done using Prismacolored pencil, on 19x24 Bristol Pads. There are many, many issues in both of these pieces, but for what they are worth, I consider them a decent attempt at capturing the essence and soul of Rockwell's paintings. Hope you enjoy it and THANK YOU for getting through this ridiculously long blog post.



Norman Rockwell Bronze

Images all taken from Google Image

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