San Diego Museum of Art

photo: John Hazeltine

Balboa Park, San Diego, CA



Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People


The iconic and quintessentially American work of Norman Rockwell journeys to the San Diego Museum of Art this fall, as the first comprehensive exhibition of Rockwell's art tours the country. Featuring more than seventy of Rockwell's oil paintings and all 322 of his Saturday Evening Post covers, Pictures for the American People explores Rockwell's unparalleled role as an American image-maker and storyteller. The San Diego Museum of Art's presentation opens on October 28, 2000 and runs through December 31, 2000 and is the only West Coast venue for the exhibition. Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People is organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta and the Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge.

"We are pleased to be the only West Coast venue for this widely discussed exhibition." said Don Bacigalupi, the Museum's director. "The Museum welcomes this great opportunity to present the prodigious output of one of America's treasures to our visitors." The national tour has met with much critical and popular success at three previous venues in Atlanta, Chicago and Washington D.C.


The Exhibition

Pictures for the American People demonstrates how Rockwell's images provided Americans with a vocabulary for describing and celebrating themselves, their country, and their experiences in the twentieth century. According to Bacigalupi, "Rockwell created some of the most enduring images of the century, and it is fitting now, at the advent of the twenty-first century, to reassess their impact on all of us. This exhibition clearly demonstrates that Rockwell was a more complex artist and social commentator than might once have been thought."

Opening the new century, Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People shows how Rockwell's work bridges the old and the new in American life; the ways in which he promoted patriotism; the means with which he faced the controversial social and political issues of his day; and the manner in which his seemingly effortless images were in fact the result of a detailed and demanding method of working. The exhibition also illuminates the relationship between Rockwell and the magazines and advertisers for whom he worked, and how they influenced his subject matter.

Featuring many of the full-scale, original oil paintings that gave birth to his magazine covers, the exhibition reveals Norman Rockwell to be more than just an accomplished illustrator. D. Scott Atkinson, the San Diego Museum of Art's curator of American art and the coordinator for the local presentation of this exhibition, explains "Norman Rockwell remains a great irony. For although he is arguably the nation's favorite twentieth-century artist, Americans know little of his art other than the illustrations which adorned the covers of The Saturday Evening Post or Boy Scout calendars. Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People is an opportunity to see, first hand, the paintings from which the illustrations were made. Visitors will be impressed by the quality of the paintings, their scale, and impact. They allow us to connect with Rockwell in a way the reproductions only hint at. In the final analysis, Rockwell will be remembered not only as a great American illustrator, but as a master painter as well."

Divided into four major thematic categories, the exhibition treats viewers to the sentimental and humorous pictures for which Rockwell is best known. In the first thematic grouping, "Inventing America," Rockwell observes how technology changed our daily lives. For example, in Going and Coming (1947), the automobile has become an integral part of a traditional event -- the family outing.

"Drawing on the Past," the exhibition's second thematic group, communicates the role eighteenth and nineteenth-century history and literature played in Rockwell's illustrations from the 1920s and 1930s. In an era of devastating wars and economic depression, images of literary and legendary heroes transported Rockwell's audiences to a time they believed to be simpler and less frenzied.

In paintings of the third group, "Celebrating the Commonplace," Rockwell transforms images of everyday life into universally appealing vignettes as evidenced in Christmas Homecoming (1948). Here, a group of holiday merrymakers enthusiastically embrace the return of an anonymous young man bearing Christmas gifts. Rockwell, who includes himself in the right middle ground of this image, best explains his approach to this category of subject matter: "The view of life I communicate in my pictures excludes the sordid and ugly. I paint life as I would like it to be."

"Honoring the American Spirit" is the last and perhaps most complex of the exhibition's thematic groups. In The Problem We All Live With (1964), for instance, Rockwell movingly addresses complex social and political issues related to race and racism. Also on view in this section are The Four Freedoms (1943), a group of four oil paintings that were chosen as the centerpiece for a major government campaign explaining "why we fight." As such, the paintings were the focal point of a traveling exhibition and bond drive that generated $132 million in war bond sales for World War II.


Other Highlights

Another highlight of the exhibition is an entire wall dedicated to the display of all 322 covers Norman Rockwell designed for the The Saturday Evening Post. Rockwell's long association with this publication, which lasted from 1916 to 1963, provided the impetus for the creation of some of the most memorable documents of how Americans viewed themselves during the twentieth century. Visitors will not only be able to follow developments in Rockwell's style and subject matter across the length of this wall, but also bear witness to seven decades of cultural and social transformation of American consciousness.

A related section of the exhibition brings visitors into Rockwell's creative process. Taking the Art Critic (1955) as an example, one may trace the artist's complex, time-consuming method of generating a cover for the Post from initial concept sketches, to photographs of models, to pencil and oil studies, to the final painting that served as the cover' s design.

To place Rockwell's work in the context of the period, the exhibition also includes a timeline of the artist's life. This timeline displays family photographs alongside newspaper headlines and photographs tracking the major political, economic, and social events of Rockwell's life and times.

The exhibition and its tour are made possible by Ford Motor Company. The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue are also made possible by The Henry Luce Foundation. Additional support is provided by The Curtis Publishing Company and The Norman Rockwell Estate Licensing Company. Education programs for the national tour are made possible by Fidelity Investments through the Fidelity Foundation. The San Diego presentation is sponsored by Ford Motor Company, Northern Trust Bank, and members of the San Diego Museum of Art.

Read earlier articles on Norman Rockwell:

A descriptive and well-presented website has been created in conjunction with the exhibition.

Read more about the San Diego Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine.

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 4/4/11

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