The Underappreciated Norman Rockwell Varun Saxena Professor Smith

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					The Underappreciated Norman Rockwell

           Varun Saxena

          Professor Smith

              UW 20

         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

impressive legacy.

       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
      instruments. (82)

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.”


                                           Appendix A


                                  Appendix B

                              Freedom to Worship

                                  Appendix C


                      Appendix D

                      Appendix E


                            Appendix F


        All appendices were found using Google Image Search

                            Works Cited

Adams, Henry. “Rediscovering Norman Rockwell.” American Artist Oct. 2002: 1. Academic

       Search Premier. George Washington U Lib. 30 Nov. 2004 <>.

“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 <>.

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. 30

       November 2005. <>.

Rosen, Jeffrey. “The Bloods and the Crits.” The New Republic 6 Dec. 1996. 30 November

       2005. <



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



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