How to Talk About Norman Rockwell

The “Four Freedoms” gallery at the Norman Rockwell Museum. Photo courtesy Berkshire Visitors Bureau. All rights reserved

You must, and shall, begin every single conversation about Norman Rockwell by addressing the question: “Is it art?” And then you must, and shall, say: “It is illustration.”

No talking point for any artist has ever been this tenacious: it sticks around like a haunted stain and will not be released by the soapy suds of repetition. “Out! Out damned spot!” you cry, but to no avail. You are cursed to begin every Rockwell conversation with the ritual: a question to which we all know the answer, and the empty answer which we must perpetually repeat. Guardians of aesthetics will stand by it, pretend to defend it against an onslaught of imagined hayseeds and phonies, and raise a red flag any time someone admires a brushstroke or appears overly enthusiastic about charm or expression or even facility.

To begin a conversation about Norman Rockwell, start with feet at least shoulder width apart, arms folded in defiance of sentiment, jingoism, and poor composition, and in a contentious tone say, “Indeed, he was one of the most revered illustrators of his time,” — and then you must hope like hell to be done with it, for God’s sake.

Still, every once in a while there will be a need to delve into greater depth. And by greater depth, I mean money. And by money, I mean an upcoming auction at Christie’s.

And so here we are: the Rockwell-was-just-an-illustrator phoenix rears it’s unflagging head once again as Christie’s prepares to place “The Rookie” (1957) on the block in its May 22 American Art sale.

Chrisite’s is estimating “The Rookie” at $20 to $30 million, a range which belies much higher expectations. Inflating Rockwell market confidence is the “record price” fetched by  “Saying Grace” (1951), which went for for $46 million at Sotheby’s in December. Not unlike “The Rookie,” it had been valued at a mere $15 to $20 million.

Demand, Renewed

The Norman Rockwell Museum. Photo by Sarah Edwards. © Norman Rockwell Museum. All rights reserved

The problem is, you have to take Mr. Rockwell seriously while he’s on the block. The artist was winning-winning-winning in December, with 17 works sold at auction — all for tidy sums. With such a clearly enthusiastic market, the auction houses have to find ways talk about Rockwell in a respectful manner.

Christie’s, perhaps anticipating the need to nip snobby criticism in the bud, made sure to insert into its press release a few choice words from senior specialist of American art Elizabeth Beaman:

“During his lifetime, Norman Rockwell was witness to such important artistic movements as Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism. In choosing a path of illustration, however, he became as ubiquitous to the American public as the images he created. With over 800 magazine covers to his name, Rockwell earned the reputation of America’s preeminent illustrator and helped forge a sense of national identity through his art.  The renewed demand for these uniquely American works of art is evidenced by their increasingly strong prices in recent seasons and this particular painting, capturing America’s favorite pastime, will surely have wide ranging appeal among collectors.”

In a nutshell that near-disclaimer provides another some very useful new tropes to stuff into your bag of much-to-be-avoided Norman Rockwell conversation extenders: Rockwell was an illustrator. He said he was an illustrator. He is marketed as an illustrator. And an illustrator is an artist. Therefore Rockwell was an artist. And he’s one experiencing, as Beaman nicely puts it, “renewed demand.”

Good Art/Bad Art

Norman Rockwell Museum (interior). Photo by Art Evans. © Norman Rockwell Museum. All rights reserved

If you like what Rockwell did, you may be tempted, in your onerous conversation, to say that he did what he did very nicely. You may be tempted to say he was a top illustrator, or even a very good artist.

Be warned: your friends, colleagues and fellow gallery visitors have been standing about for a while now. Some of them need to pee. Some of them just want to go home. They were not prepared to be taken seriously. So you’ll have to be quick about it.

Still, if you must persist, there are other adjectives you can place in front of the word art which may be helpful. Those would be ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

Now the word ‘art’ is troublesome when aesthetic value is being questioned because too many of you insist on equivocating ‘art’ and ‘good art’ — as if the possibility of art being bad is not to be considered. That’s because it has become popular to use the word ‘art’ as an honorific term, like ‘hero’ — something that is good in itself. Let’s dispense with that, okay, Wittgenstein?

Look, it’s art no matter what. If the author calls it art, it’s art. It’s art if Larry Gagosian sells it. My niece’s macaroni portrait of her cat, Snoozles, is art. (To be sold in the Adorable Art Fair.) It’s all art.

So, even if it’s not “fine art” but commercial art, or decorative art, or design, we can still ask, “Is it good art, or is it bad art?”

I say you can ask this. But I suggest you don’t. Your audience has grown weary and are likely not up for discussing the nuances of style and historical context.

Historical Context

Norman Rockwell model Wray Gunn gives a tour to visitors at Norman Rockwell Museum. Photo by Jeremy Clowe. © Norman Rockwell Museum. All rights reserved

Once you’ve knocked yourself out making clear that you know that Rockwell was an illustrator, but that illustrators are artists too, and that you still think he’s a good artist, you might have to justify yourself. You’ve knocked over the straw man that the snobs pretend to joust with: you don’t deny that he was doing work for hire; you acknowledge the sentimental quality of his subjects; you don’t imagine his paintings have the heft or the complexity of fine art. You are also getting on our nerves.

Time to liven things up: get controversial and discuss Rockwell in the context of his peers in American illustrative painting.

Norman Rockwell began his career with illustrations for the covers of Boy Scouts journals. His next gig was The Saturday Evening Post. He followed in the footsteps of many illustrators who’d already set the tone. The branding was in place. And most of Rockwell’s career was spent producing 322 of these covers and similar illustrations for other publications like The Literary Digest, The Country Gentleman, Leslie’s Weekly, Judge, Peoples Popular Monthly and Life Magazine.

His own brand — idealistic, sweet, lightly humorous, and easily digestible — was nailed down by the time he was in his mid-twenties and it barely changed over the years. Even those who like to point out that his work turned somewhat topical in the 60’s have to admit that he kept it simple: racism is bad, space travel is good.

Still, those who appreciate the Rockwell style will discuss his cinematic knack for costume, expression and movement. His characters were very human, very fleshy and boney. And he really did know how to choose details, like the nearly photo-real reflections in a nickel plated bar stool in “The Runaway” (1958).

Those are the sorts of things one likes when one is looking at illustrations.

Changing the Subject

Norman Rockwell’s Stockbridge studio (interior). Photo by Jeremy Clowe. © Norman Rockwell Museum. All rights reserved

What I like to do, personally, when faced with a Norman Rockwell conversation, is to change the subject. This, next to “say ‘gesture'” is my favorite How to Talk About Art™ tip! With Rockwell it’s easy to steer the conversation away. Just bring up J.C. Leyendecker. Now that guy’s a lot more fun!

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