Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Norman Rockwell

One of my best friends growing up was a kid named Eric. Eric was "the new kid" in third grade, as he'd just been rezoned from another school district. After talking to him in class a couple of times, we realized that we both shared several common interests - (namely Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z). So, after a couple of weeks of bro-ing around on the playground, Eric invited me over to his house, where he lived with his godparents, to play some video games. I still remember walking in and meeting his godfather - we all called him Papa Steve - who turned out to be a really funny guy, with enough slightly dirty jokes to make any third grader burst out laughing. Anyway, it was during that first visit to his house that I saw my first Rockwell painting:

I was captivated. Even at that age, I had had some exposure to art (my father is an amateur artist) but this was different. It had something that I've never seen anyone accomplish as well as Rockwell - it told a story. I think that's exactly what drew me to that picture when I was young, and its exactly what makes me respect his work to this day. His art is all about narratives: a truck driver winking at a pretty girl as he drives by, a boy fishing in the shade with his dog - just ordinary stuff, but he manages to capture the moment perfectly - the faces, expressions, the details - it's like a perfect snapshot of various moments in American life.

Rockwell was born in New York city in 1894. After attending art school, he tried to enlist in the WWI draft, but was refused for being underweight. He ended up doing drawings for military propaganda and various magazines, until he finally began doing cover art for the Saturday Evening Post (for which he is most famous). Towards the end of his career, his work began to concern itself with more serious political and societal issues, including race relations , civil rights, and poverty. By the time he died in 1978, he had produced thousands of original works. However, during his time he was rarely taken seriously by art critics, as they felt that he was an illustrator, rather than a creator of fine art - which didn't bother Rockwell at all, as he called himself an illustrator anyway.

This first drawing is called "The Rookie". It was done on March 2nd, 1957 using charcoal pencils on joined paper. Much like most of Rockwell's work, you can really see a lot of realism in the piece. Notice the great manipulation of shading and value in scene - from the wrinkles in the clothes to the faces of the players. It really conveys the presence of the light coming in from the windows. Also, you can see an incredible level of detail throughout. What I really enjoy about this piece is the almost palpable sense of tension I can feel just from looking at this situation - everyone's staring down the new guy.

This drawing is called "The Runaway", and was apparently inspired by Rockwell's own childhood escape attempt. It is actually a study drawing for a painting of the same subject/name, using pencil on board. I really like the positioning of the subjects and surrounding objects in this one. There's plenty of background information (coffee pots, shelves, etc.) but none of it manages to take away from the central characters. There's also a good use of varying line strength - strong, dark lines for the outlines of the people, with lighter lines covering the details of their clothing and persons. Once again, he manages to capture amazing facial expressions.

I really wanted to include this last one, even though it's a painting. Not only is it one of his most famous and well-regarded works, it also is a great example of the emotional depth that his subject matter can reach - the title of the work itself should speak to that: "The Problem We All Live With". It was completed in 1964 and depicts the real life story of Ruby Bridges, the first African-American student to enroll in an all-white school in the south during desegregation. Notice, that you see the scene through the eyes of the crowd. The "N" word and "KKK" are scribbled onto the wall, and a thrown tomato slides down as well - clearly not a pleasant situation to be in. But you can see that Ruby walks confidently under the protection of the Federal Marshalls. Yet another American story brilliantly told by Rockwell's realistic and expressive style.

Mecklenburg, Virginia M., and Todd McCarthy. Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. New York: Abrams, 2010. Print.

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