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.”

Through 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.

“I 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.

“I 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.

In 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.”

The Dayton Art Institute
456 Belmonte Park North, Dayton 45405 | 937/223-5277,

In conjunction with the exhibit, The Dayton Art Institute is hosting a variety of special programs, including:

Jan. 12: “Poetry and Rockwell” will be filled with words and music inspired by the art of Norman Rockwell and American life during the 20th century.
Jan. 17: “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.
Jan. 26: “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.