To see a slideshow of some of the Normal Rockwell paintings featured in the "American Chronicles: The Art of Normal Rockwell" exhibit, click the photo above.
January 2012 Issue
Portrait of America
The Dayton Art Institute showcases the talent of Norman Rockwell.
If there’s ever a time we need Norman Rockwell, it’s now. During World War
II, the celebrated artist illustrated all that was good about life in
America: apple-cheeked children at play, a family gathering for a
bountiful Thanksgiving dinner, a community welcoming home a returning
soldier. Fast-forward seven decades to a nation filled with financial
fallout and political strife. Clearly, hard times are here again. And
so is Rockwell’s relevancy.
“For the last 10 years, we’ve all
struggled with the questions, ‘What does America mean to me?’ and ‘Where
do I fit in?’” reflects Michael Roediger, executive director of The
Dayton Art Institute. “Revisiting Norman Rockwell’s work assures us
that we still are, even during difficult days, the greatest country on
the face of the earth. His paintings serve as a reminder that we have
freedoms other countries just don’t have.
“When I look at the body of Rockwell’s work,” Roediger adds, “it makes me proud to be an American.”
Feb. 5, the institute is showcasing the life and talent of the esteemed
illustrator by presenting “American Chronicles: The Art of Norman
Rockwell.” Organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge,
Massachusetts, the retrospective features the 323 magazine covers he
created for The Saturday Evening Post between 1916 and 1963, as well as
42 original works of art. The exhibit also offers intriguing insight
into the way Rockwell worked — beginning with preliminary sketches and
photographs, through to the pièce de résistance of oil paintings.
paint life as I would like it to be,” the artist wrote in his 1960
autobiography. And indeed the bulk of his work is testament to that
fact. It’s comprised of feel-good images guaranteed to bring a smile —
ranging from 1947’s “Coming and Going,” a family’s before-and-after,
bright-to-bleary vacation experience, to the artist’s 1956 offering,
“The Discovery,” in which a youngster stumbles upon a Santa suit in his
parents’ dresser drawer.
But, as the exhibit emphasizes, Rockwell’s work is so much more than schmaltz.
like to think that each time people look at one of my [images], they
will see something they had not noticed before, which will give [it]
added meaning,” the artist was known to explain.
It is this intricate blend of the simple-yet-complex that transcends nostalgia and makes Rockwell’s work so riveting.
1944, for example, he painted “Mine America’s Coal” for a recruitment
poster designed to encourage miners to help meet the energy needs of the
war. At first glance, the image simply seems to depict an affable
middle-aged worker engaged in the cause. But a closer look brings the
two-star pin the man wears to the forefront — a symbol that he is doing
his duty and then some: This dad has two sons serving in battle. In
Rockwell’s 1954 “Girl at Mirror,” an adolescent has cast aside her doll
to take up lipstick and comb. But a touch of sexuality has been added to
the innocence: The face gazing up from the magazine on the tween’s
knee is that of Jane Russell, one of the decade’s box-office bombshells.
“There’s nothing left to chance in a Rockwell painting,” explains Susan Anable, The Dayton Art Institute’s director of education, “which is why he was such a genius.”
It’s ironic that Rockwell’s last cover
for The Saturday Evening Post was a portrait of President John F.
Kennedy, published in memoriam following his assassination. The leader’s
death ushered in changing times, and the artist was quick to
acknowledge them. Rockwell began an affiliation with Look magazine, and
used the periodical as a canvas for social conscience based on fact. His
most poignant paintings during the ’60s include the heartbreaking
vignette, “The Problem We All Live With,” in which an African-American
child stoically ignores the tomato that’s been hurled at her and the
graffiti she must pass on her way to integrating her elementary school;
and “Murder in Mississippi,” a somber depiction of the slaying of three
civil rights workers.
“Up until his death in 1978, Norman Rockwell
was all about appreciating the small moments in life,” says Stephanie
Plunkett, chief curator of Massachusetts’ Rockwell Museum. “And he also
had a tremendous empathy for humanity and the dignity of all people that
was especially reflected in his later years. Rockwell tried to create
artwork that would help to change the way people saw the world.
“Those images,” she adds, “still have the power to affect the way we think and feel.”
WHEN YOU GO
The Dayton Art Institute
456 Belmonte Park North, Dayton 45405 | 937/223-5277, daytonartinstitute.org
In conjunction with the exhibit, The Dayton Art Institute is hosting a variety of special programs, including:
: “Poetry and Rockwell” will be filled with words and music inspired by the art of Norman Rockwell and American life during the 20th century.
: “Ruby Bridges: Her Story” is an evening spent with the woman who, as a child, was the inspiration for one of the artist’s most poignant works, “The Problem We All Live With.” She will discuss what it was like to integrate an all-white New Orleans school in 1960.
: “Art and Illustration” explores Rockwell’s personal struggle with being perceived as “just” a commercial artist rather than a serious one.
Call for times and admission prices.