Rockwell's America

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Rockwell's America

James Carman

Norman Rockwell's paintings are the work of a great storyteller, well-versed in the ways of the cinema.

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Triple Self-Portrait
The Saturday Evening Post, February 13, 1960 (cover)
Oil on canvas (44 1/2 x 34 3/4 in.)
The Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge, Massachusetts

I remain on the white picket fence about whether Norman Rockwell is a great artist. But on a recent Sunday, seeking escape from the blistering heat of the Washington streets in a crowded exhibition of the artist’s work drawn from the personal collections of filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lukas, the question seemed almost irrelevant. Rockwell is a consummate entertainer, and the easy appeal of his work remains undimmed more than 30 years after his death.

As critic Dave Hickey noted, in a 1999 Vanity Affair article distilled in our pages, Rockwell possessed “a tolerance for and faith in the young as the ground-level condition of democracy,” a quality that “distinguishes him as a peculiarly American artist.” That explains why so many of his best Saturday Evening Post covers focus on young people: the boy holding his bandaged pooch in the veterinarian’s waiting room, the tomboy besting her male companions at marbles, the pony-tailed girl watching her mother primping at a vanity.
 
What I found most intriguing about the work on exhibit, though, is the quality that attracted Spielberg and Lukas, who themselves have contributed as much to the cultural iconography of their time as Rockwell did to his. Rockwell’s paintings were not just staged; they were cast, rehearsed, set-designed, and directed as much as any movie, all to capture—in the frozen moment of the final image—a complete story. His pictures were populated with characters that had off-screen lives, their faces bursting with emotion. “The key to Rockwell is that he’s a great storyteller,” Lukas says in a filmed interview that is part of the exhibition, “and he used cinematic devices to tell his story.”
 
Spielberg enthusiastically explains that he purchased his first Rockwell painting—“And Daniel Boone Comes to Life on the Underwood Portable”—because it reminded him so much of his own struggles to write movie scripts. Spielberg hung his most recent Rockwell purchase, Boy on High Dive—in which the painting’s subject peers in terror over the end of a diving board—in his office, as a reminder that only by overcoming doubts can we accomplish anything worth celebrating.
 
But like many who view Rockwell’s art, I am often left in some discomfort about his larger vision. Lukas places him in the context of filmmakers such as Frank Capra, who, he says, “had that sort of idealistic, fantasy vision of what we wanted America to be, or what we thought America was.” It’s hard not to notice that Rockwell’s America is a remarkably white, homogeneous place. And as I left the exhibit, I couldn’t help but note that the visitors looking at his art shared those same characteristics.
 
“Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lukas and Steven Spielberg” remains on exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., until January 2, 2011.