The Underappreciated Norman Rockwell
30 November 2005
Over a period of 47 years, this artist had a captive and adoring audience, one larger than
that enjoyed by any other artist in history (Rockwell’s). Moments prior to the jury’s visit, OJ
Simpson’s defense team prominently hung this artist’s classic civil rights era painting, The
Problem We All Live With (Appendix A), inside their defendant’s home (Rosen). A set of the
artist’s paintings known as The Four Freedoms (Appendix B) so powerfully captured American
values during an era of wartime anxiety that they raised $133 million dollars in war bonds
(Adams). The artist is Norman Rockwell (1894-1978): the man who popularized art in America
through the creation of nearly a half century’s worth of Saturday Evening Post magazine covers.
Taken together, the artist’s portfolio of over four thousand paintings is an illustrated journal of
everyday American life in the 20th century. No monetary value can capture the portfolio’s
enduring representation of American culture. Norman Rockwell has been labeled a painter, an
illustrator, and a storyteller, but whichever category the artist fits into, what is undeniable is his
Unfortunately, Rockwell’s stature amongst art experts falls far short of his impressive
achievements. In her essay “The People’s Painter,” Laurie Moffat writes:
Few twentieth-century survey exhibitions include Rockwell. Only a handful of
major museums throughout the country collect and exhibit him. A few major
collectors are just starting to add him to their holdings. Art history curricula in
colleges and universities routinely leave him out, and the few that include him
often do so with disdain. (Moffatt 26-27)
But ignorance seems blissful compared to art critic’s Thomas F. Wolff’s scathing disparagement
of Rockwell’s art:
There can be no doubt that Rockwell’s production was uneven, that most of it
was trivial, even, at times embarrassingly hackneyed. He had difficulty avoiding
the obvious and overly sentimental: little boys were invariably freckled and
gawky, had big ears, and loved baseball; little old ladies were kindly and loved
nothing so much as to give cookies to children and to beam at evidence of young
love. (Belgrad 1)
Oddly, it is the artist’s massive popular appeal that has lead to these sorts of attacks. Author of
the essay “Great Art Communicator,” Thomas Hoving states, “Art history for snobbish reasons
has always been suspicious of artists considered to be popularizers – especially successful
artists” (29). Art experts felt threatened by Rockwell’s role in democratizing art, which explains
why they attacked the artist’s most defining characteristic.
Rockwell’s distinct brand of realism was out of place in an era when abstract artists such
as Jackson Pollock were breaking new artistic grounds. In the essay “Some Comments from the
Boy in a Dining Car,” Rockwell’s son, Peter Rockwell, writes, “Many in the world of fine arts
viewed realist painting as not merely dated, but also reactionary and worthy of contempt” (71).
“People would write that he must hate Picasso and Pollock” (71), he continues. On the other
hand, he notes that other Americans viewed abstract art as “insulting and immoral” (71). The
debate over the validity of abstract art was a small part of a larger dispute taking place in
American society during the mid 1900’s.
The younger Rockwell’s commentary encapsulates the tug of war that was taking place
between the “high brows” and the “mid brows,” to reference Herbert Gehr’s famous painting.
Due to the onslaught of popular culture and the birth of the middle class, the mid brows were
gaining strength, and threatening the elitism of the high brows, such as those in the so called
world of fine arts. Not surprisingly then, the status of Norman Rockwell was at the forefront of
the clash. Daniel Belgrad explains it best in the article, “The Rockwell Syndrome.”
The conflicting values represented by the highbrow and middle brow parallel the
lines along which we have already heard Rockwell being criticized and praised-
with highbrows championing subtlety, and the middlebrows accessibility. Each
group represented their particular canon of taste as the necessary basis of the
American democracy. (1)
It is time for a more objective examination of Rockwell and his classic artwork. Only then will
his paintings’ great depth and subtlety become apparent to the high brows that populate
America’s art circles.
The famous piece Triple Self Portrait (Appendix C) has transcended the barrier of time
because it epitomizes the unique qualities of Rockwell's paintings that have often gone
unnoticed in the world of fine arts – particularly their humorous nature. The artist’s detractors
often criticize him for his everyday subject matter, but no other artist can take an art form as
commonplace as the self portrait and make it seem so abnormal. According to Arthur Guptill,
author of Norman Rockwell Illustrator, “one was quite dull indeed who,” from Rockwell’s
paintings, “did not comprehend that the Common Man was a quite uncommon fellow” (xxi). In
addition, the painting contains another defining element of Rockwellian art, the element that
made his work so popular amongst the mid brows.
Triple Self Portrait highlights the humor that Rockwell inserted into most of his
paintings. The piece strikes the viewer as oddly amusing for at least three reasons. It is ironic
that Rockwell is wearing glasses in the paintings, but not in his portrait, because the artist
appears to be intently studying himself in the mirror in order to draw himself as accurately as
possible. In addition, the thoughtful pose Rockwell is striking in the portrait is juxtaposed
brilliantly with Rockwell himself, whose tilted soda glass and burning cigarette butt suggest a
rather disordered nature. Finally, Rockwell’s unmistakable signature is on the self-portrait,
giving it a double meaning. The depth of the humor in Triple Self Portrait is a testament to the
subtlety of the artist’s work.
While the immediacy of the piece’s humor makes it appealing to everyone, its intricate
nature offers art critics plenty to analyze. Triple Self Portrait is an example of the distinct and
sophisticated brand of comedy that the artist employed throughout his career to delight the
everyday American. To consistently attain such a high level of irony and juxtaposition, Rockwell
cast his subjects in surprising roles. By inserting his peculiar subjects into subtly amusing
environments, Rockwell created a distinct brand of comedy that is as sophisticated as it is
comical – proving that the artist’s work does have deep meaning and merits scholarly praise.
Rockwell’s sense of humor is rarely offered as proof of the man’s genius. Perhaps that is
because humor usually prevents artwork from achieving “greatness.” Newberry Award winning
author E.B. White once wrote, “The world likes humor, but treats it patronizingly. It decorates
its serious artists with laurel, and its wags with Brussels sprouts. It feels that if a thing is funny
it can be presumed to be something less than great, because if it were truly great it would be
wholly serious” (Scieszka 3). In addition, by its very nature, humor is difficult to analyze. Since
there is no reason why humor should be shunned by scholars and because few others have
examined the artist’s use of comedy, I hope to lay fresh evidence proving that Rockwell belongs
in the cannon of America’s premier artists.
Created in 1955 as a Saturday Evening Post Cover, Art Critic (Appendix D) is another
of Rockwell’s “painting within a painting” works. Its irony makes the painting comedic. The
question begging to be asked is: who is doing the looking in the painting? The facial expressions
of the woman and the two men in the backgrounds suggest that the paintings are alive. The
woman is looking at the art critic curiously, and smiles as if posing for his portrait, while the two
elderly men watch disapprovingly as a young man examines the well-adorned woman. The art
critic’s obliviousness is also comical. Christopher Finch asks, “Was [Rockwell] warning young
artists against the danger of paying too much detail at the expense of the whole work” (112)? Or
perhaps the artist was trying to convey a more self-serving argument. Whether it was intentional
or not, Rockwell dramatized the power of his medium of communication - as if the long lines of
Americans waiting to pick up the Saturday Evening Post weren’t proof enough - by
personifying the paintings. Like all good teachers, Rockwell taught in a subtle manner, using
humor to slyly convey a message to not only young artists, but to the general public.
The artist was at his sneakiest in his April Fool’s day covers for The Saturday Evening
Post. So entertaining were his April Fool’s day covers that they reappeared in the magazine’s
1997 April Fool’s day edition. The feature piece introducing the covers concludes,
“Nevertheless, if you have nothing better to do (even if you have, lay it aside) why not challenge
the family to a contest of finding the most April Fool errors in the painting coming up? This
could provide as much fun as the artist must have had creating them” (Stoddard 1). Rockwell’s
1943 cover (Appendix E) features two elderly people about to play checkers at least 45
mistakes, although Rockwell claimed to have received a letter from South America listing 184
(Guptill 181). Some of the more comical errors include the pencil with two erasers hanging from
the man’s ears, the cane that turns into a shovel, and the skateboard underneath the old man’s
feet (the thought of him standing up opens a world of hilarious possibilities). In addition, the
wallet tied to a string is a nice touch because the elderly couples are living in an idiosyncratic
world already, and do need to add more irregularities to their lives. Once again, the obviousness
of the subjects is amusing. Although detractors of Rockwell view his subjects as naïve and
innocent, their nature actually functions to further the comedic nature of his work.
Also featured in the 1997 edition of the Post was Rockwell’s 1948 April Fool’s day
cover. The latter cover is atypical for Rockwell in that the errors, while humorous, are also
disturbing. Many of the errors are not at all light-hearted. For instance, there is a clone of the
main subject in the main subject in the form a doll, and the doll is cradling a skunk as if it were a
mother adoring its newborn baby. According to Peter Rockwell, this April Fool’s day painting is
especially significant because it is the only painting his father produced that has a mysterious or
magical quality to it (Rockwell 76). Therefore, Norman Rockwell must have been driven by a
rather singular motive when creating it.
On a more intellectual level, the April Fool’s day paintings are funny because they
contain a great paradox. “As we look at the painting, we see more and more ways that something
can be painted the absolutely realistically, yet be absolutely wrong” (74), explains Peter
Rockwell. The April Fool’s paintings demonstrate the multifaceted nature of Rockwell’s sense
of humor. It is this characteristic that makes his comedic paintings simultaneously personal and
universal, for the two covers offer entertainment to the seven year old, as well as fodder for the
intellectual in the form of an intriguing paradox.
Rockwell’s immaculate realism and Jackson Pollack’s jarring abstractions form a
powerful paradox of their own in The Connoisseur (Appendix F). The painting is clearly a study
in contrasts. The well-dressed man and geometric floor are the antithesis of Rockwell’s imitation
of Jackson Pollock. Wanda Corn, author of “New Ways of Seeing” points out that the viewer is
unnaturally symmetric. Even the wrinkles in his clothes seem to mirror each other, and the seam
in his jacket cuts his body exactly in half (Corn 87). Clearly, Rockwell utilized juxtaposition to
its full extent in The Connoisseur. The effect is one of irony, for the stodgy old man is not suited
to enjoy a modernesque work of abstract art. The painting evokes common memories of feeling
awkward and out of place, such as when watching an inappropriate movie with one’s parents.
Its universal nature makes The Connoisseur – like other pieces by Rockwell – funny.
While the contrasts in The Connoisseur are readily apparent, the painting is peppered
with funny details, noticeable only to the discerning viewer. The book in the hands of the man is
not just an ordinary book; it is a museum guide. This further suggests that he is schooled in the
realm of classical “museum” art and strengthens the piece’s irony. In addition, there is an
unmistakable red P in the upper right-hand corner of the painting. Immediately to the left of the
man’s head lies a green J for Jackson (Corn 84). The letters contrast not only to the abstraction
around them, but also to Norman Rockwell’s own geometric signature. To strengthen the affect,
Rockwell put his signature in plain sight of the viewer. Finally, Corn observes that, “there is a
little white tuft at the front center of the Beholder’s head that simultaneously belongs both to
the hair on the man’s head and to the painting’s surface” (Corn 87). In The Connoisseur, the
artist creates subtle and amusing details, all of which add to the painting’s humor.
More so than most works by Rockwell, The Connoisseur is best understood within the
context of its time period. Created in 1962 as a Saturday Evening Post cover, the painting stoked
the tensions between the high brows and the mid brows. The magazine’s suburban middle class
readership was surprised by the abstraction, particularly since it came from their beloved
Norman Rockwell, who was previously thought to be a hater of modern art. Some of the readers
were insulted. In a letter to the editor appearing in the following edition M. R. Daugherty wrote,
“The word ‘art’ has been discounted as much as Uncle Sam’s dollar in applying the word to
such stuff ” (Corn 85). Other readers reacted more forcefully to the man because “the world that
the contemporary connoisseur occupied was so far removed from the realities of their own lives”
(Corn 87). Ultimately, neither the man nor the painting is intrinsically funny; the humor lies in
their interaction, explains Christopher Finch in his interpretation of the work in the book 102
Favorite Paintings by Norman Rockwell (148). A different letter to the editor in the same edition
attempts to explain that interaction. Joe Atkins wrote that the man is bewildered because the
painting “‘is obviously lying upside down’” (Corn 85). Atkin’s opinion demonstrates the
intersection between humor and sophistication that Rockwell so often achieved, for his
commentary, while funny, demonstrates thought and is a plausible if unrealistic argument.
Atkin’s interpretation is all the more interesting in light of the fact that Rockwell offered
no clues pertaining to the man’s reaction. Therein lies the humor for Christopher Finch, who
wrote, “Rockwell is poking fun at people who set themselves up in judgment of others” (148).
Indeed, Atkins as well as many professional art critics would look like quite the fool if the man
were to turn around and say that he is thoroughly enjoying and appreciating the painting!
Interestingly, Pollock himself once said that viewers should “not bring a subject matter or
preconceived idea of what they are looking for” when viewing his work (Corn 93). His comments
lend credence to Finch’s view, and support the contention that Rockwell created the painting as a
tribute to Pollock, who had died five years earlier. In fact, near the large red J there is a smaller
green J, and the two Js form a cross at their intersection point. It is clear that the humorous
elements of the painting add depth to the work and contribute to the painting’s deeper meaning.
In her interpretation of the work, Wanda Corn came to a different conclusion. In the
essay “Ways of Seeing,” she argues that The Connoisseur is comical because it dramatizes the
way in which viewers are supposed to look at abstract art - a method of looking known as “the
theory of transcendence” (Corn 93). If the theory is practiced correctly, “the viewer might so
psychologically merge with the painting that he would lose consciousness of his physical self”
(Corn 93). For evidence she cites the white spot that merges with the man’s head, the sharply
pointed diamond floor that makes the man appear to float, and the shadows surrounding the
canvas, which give the illusion that the painting is protruding towards the man’s face (Corn 93).
From the laymen to the art critic, The Connoisseur’s humor elicits quite a variety of responses.
Everybody finds it funny for different reasons. The lack of a clear consensus is proof that
Norman Rockwell’s humor is sophisticated and contains a great deal of meaning.
What is clear is that Rockwell’s ability to depart from his own style and successfully
imitate Pollack demonstrates his skill as an artist. Successfully imitating Pollock was a difficult
task. In the essays, “Ways of Seeing” Wanda Corn highlights the challenges Rockwell faced:
When Pollock created his large canvases, he laid them flat on the ground and walked
around them, using the full swing of his arm to create arcs and drips of paint. The
size and character of his forms, in other words, bore a direct relationship to the scale
of his own body. To replicate such effects in miniature, Rockwell had to give the
illusion of full arm swings of paint but in fact work up close with smaller
It seems as though just about anyone could have created the painting within The Connoisseur,
but that is clearly not the case. Since the abstraction is the central comedic force in The
Connoisseur it is the clearest example yet of the importance of humor in Rockwell’s paintings,
and demonstrates the difficulties he endured to achieve comedy.
Peter Rockwell believes it was the difficulty of reconciling his easily accessible images
with his demanding methods of production that lead his father to create the 1948 April Fool’s
day painting (74). Indeed, the artist’s meticulous process consisted of 15 steps (Guptill 193). The
most famous step was the fifth one, called “posing and photographing.” During Rockwell’s
photo sessions his carefully selected models (he purposefully avoided professional actors
because he thought they were too generic), “acted out” the painting. As many as 75 photographs
were taken to produce a single Saturday Evening Post Cover (Guptill, 197-199). In addition, his
method of brainstorming for ideas was highly advanced. “Rockwell developed his ideas through
innumerable 3 X 5 sketches, in which he jumps from one concept to another through a
remarkable process of free association,” explains Henry Adams in the essay “Rediscovering
Norman Rockwell.” In one series of ten sketches, Rockwell began with a lamppost, as was his
custom, and concluded with a lone cowboy. Along the way he drew a soldier, a sailor, a dog, and
a square dance, to name just a few of his brainstorms. Interestingly, psychologists use an
analogous method to explore their subject’s subconscious (Adams). The analogy sheds light
upon the reasons why millions of Americans could so easily relate to his original paintings.
From conception to creation, the process that Rockwell used to achieve such a high
degree of realism is one of his hallmarks and every bit as much of an artistic breakthrough as
Pollock’s famous techniques for creating abstract art. It is a shame that the bias of the era’s
academics against realism prevented them from fully recognizing the power of Rockwell’s
painstaking methods of production. Their ignorance has prevented contemporary artists from
replicating and improving upon Rockwell’s techniques.
The history of art is filled with critical attacks on works that are deemed overly
simplistic. In 2001, British novelist Beryl Bainbridge publicly assailed what is known as “chick
lit” exemplified by Helen Fielding’s novel Bridget Jone’s Diary. “It is a froth sort of thing. What
is the point in writing a whole novel about it?" she asked BBC Radio 4's Today program: “As
people spend so little time reading, it is a pity they perhaps can't read something a bit deeper, a
bit more profound, something with a bit of bite to it” (Bainbridge). Her words sound strikingly
similar to those of Rockwell’s detractors. While Norman Rockwell’s paintings contain plenty of
“froth” in the form of humor, they are most definitely not “a froth sort of thing.”
Freedom to Worship
All appendices were found using Google Image Search
Adams, Henry. “Rediscovering Norman Rockwell.” American Artist Oct. 2002: 1. Academic
Search Premier. George Washington U Lib. 30 Nov. 2004 <http://web1.epnet.com>.
“Bainbridge Denounces Chick-Lit as ‘Froth.’” Guardian Online. 23 Aug. 2001: 30 Nov. 2005
Belgrad, Daniel. “The Rockwell Syndrome.” Art in America. Apr. 2000: 1. Academic Search
Premier. George Washington U. Lib. 30 Nov. 2004 <http://web1.epnet.com>.
Fincher, Chris. 102 Favorites by Norman Rockwell. New York: Artabras, 1978.
Guptill, Arthur. Norman Rockwell Illustrator. New York: Watson-Guptill, 1946.
Hennessey, and Anne Knutson, eds. Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People. New
York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999.
Corn, Wanda. “Ways of Seeing.” Hennessey and Knutson 81-93.
Hoving, Thomas. “The Great Art Communicator.” Hennessey and Knutson 29-31
Moffatt, Laurie. “The People’s Painter.” Hennessey and Knutson 23-27.
Rockwell, Peter. “Some Comments from the Boy in a Dining Car.” Hennessey and Knutson 67-
“Rockwell’s America: Celebrating the Art of Norman Rockwell.” Speech. Rockwelltour.com. 30
November 2005. < http://www.rockwelltour.com/qt.html>.
Rosen, Jeffrey. “The Bloods and the Crits.” The New Republic 6 Dec. 1996. 30 November
2005. < http://www.mugu.com/cgi-bin/Upstream/rosen-bloods-
Scieszka, Jon. “What’s so Funny Mr. Scieszka?” Horn Book Magazine. Nov./Dec. 2005: 1.
Academic Search Premier. George Washington U. Lib. 30 Nov. 2004
Stoddard, Maynard. “April Fool-ing Around.” Saturday Evening Post. Mar./Apr. 1997: 1.
Academic Search Premier. George Washington U. Lib. 30 Nov. 2004