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American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell

March 8 - May 31, 2009


Family -- innocence -- heroism. These are the core themes interwoven throughout the work of Norman Rockwell, one of America's most recognized and beloved artists. American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell, on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts March 8 - May 31, 2009, explores Rockwell the artist, his images, and their impact and influence on American culture. (right: Norman Rockwell, Girl Reading the Post, 1941, Painting for The Saturday Evening Post cover, March 1, 1941, Oil on board. Norman Rockwell Museum Collection. Gift of the Walt Disney Family)

From idyllic childhood scenes to commentaries on the post-war era and segregation, many paintings in Rockwell's six decades of work have become American icons. A number of Rockwell's signature works are among the 44 paintings and 323 original Saturday Evening Post covers in the exhibition: No Swimming (1921); Four Freedoms (1942); Christmas Homecoming (1948); Triple Self Portrait (1959) and the famous The Problem We All Live With (1963), dealing with school desegregation, and was painted to mark the 10th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.

American Chronicles explores the themes of family, innocence and heroism that permeate Rockwell's work. His paintings of families include storylines filled with love, affection and humor, and are free of difficulties such as disease, loneliness, and death. Rockwell knew that uplifting sentiments appealed to people's emotions, and he used them effectively in his commercial and advertising work during his 47 years with the Saturday Evening Post.

When Rockwell wanted to express innocence, he painted children, portraying American childhood as carefree and charming. His cheerful pictures of happy kids untouched by hard realities prompted viewers to recall similar feelings -- if not similar scenes -- from their own childhoods. These desirable, happy scenes were ones people wanted to associate themselves with, and the images were advertising gold for products like cereal and magazines. However, some of Rockwell's most poignant and affecting images portray innocence lost, where the idealization of childhood is contrasted against the far more complicated world of adults. Girl at Mirror (1954) shows a young girl tentatively applying make-up with a celebrity magazine on her lap. Another moment of lost innocence is seen in The Discovery (1956), which shows a little boy with a shocked expression who has just found a Santa suit in his father's dresser drawer.

When depicting heroism, Rockwell focused on reassuring images of leaders, such as President Dwight D. Eisenhower or John F. Kennedy, but he also cast everyday Americans as heroes, focusing on their personal sacrifice and duty to the nation. Some of his most powerful images are those made in support of America's involvement in World War II. Rockwell's heroes are rarely shown on the front-line; he preferred to portray the quiet heroism of those who waited for loved ones left behind, such as the miner with two sons in the military featured in the poster Mine America's Coal (1945). When Rockwell created images for the extremely successful war bond posters Four Freedoms, he shows citizens at home enjoying the liberties that America fought to preserve. (left: Norman Rockwell, Christmas Homecoming, 1948, Painting for The Saturday Evening Post cover, December 25, 1948, Oil on canvas. Norman Rockwell Museum Collection)

At the height of his fame and recognition, Rockwell sought out difficult themes of the day in what he referred to as "big pictures." Up until the early 1960s, Rockwell's illustrations served the needs of the conservative Saturday Evening Post, which during the early- and mid- 20th century celebrated white, middle class, small hometown values to the exclusion of many other kinds of American experience. Rockwell left The Post for Look magazine in 1964, where he was able to take on issues of social consciousness, such as war, racism, poverty and injustice. He used his illustrative and storytelling skills to make injustice visible. His image of Ruby Bridges in The Problem We All Live With (1963) or three civil rights workers in Murder in Mississippi (1965) are still powerful reminders of America's struggle for civil rights for all.

The exhibition will also display photo murals of one of Rockwell's studios and his working process. He often posed for his own paintings and viewers will get a glimpse into his technique of preparing to create a painting.

"Rockwell's pictures grow in meaning and significance because of his profound impact on American culture," said Graham W. J. Beal, Detroit Institute of Ar director. "As part of the mass media for decades, Rockwell's images have come to be seen as defining the core American experience. To our 21st-century eyes, they present complex questions about who and what is American. We invite you to take another look at one of America's most well-known artists."

American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell has been organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. American Chronicles has been made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, American Masterpieces Program. Publication support has been provided by the Henry Luce Foundation. Media sponsorship has been provided by the Curtis Publishing Company and by the Norman Rockwell Estate Licensing Company. A fully illustrated catalog is available in the Detroit Institute of Art Museum Shop.


(above: Norman Rockwell, Murder in Mississippi, April 6-13, 1965, Painting intended as the final illustration for Look story, "Southern Justice" by Charles Morgan, Jr., June 29, 1965. Unpublished, Oil on canvas. Norman Rockwell Museum Collection)


Go to:

Biography of Norman Rockwell

Wall labels for the exhibition

Additional images for the exhibition


Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy:


From The Art Bulletin:


This online video:

AOL Television offers Biography: Norman Rockwell, [47:00] via truveo.com which says of the video: "It is a source of fury to the formal art world that Norman Rockwell was and remains the most visible and beloved of the American painters of this century. His name has come to symbolize the best of an era when American had a single clean, shining patriotic vision. A time when God, country and goodness meant not just something, but everything. While the 320 Rockwell covers for the "Saturday Evening Post" are part of the past, his happy fame lives on in the collections of people as diverse as Richard Nixon, Johnny Carson, Steven Spielberg, Andy Warhol and Ringo Starr. This biography uncovers the complicated man who produced the glorious and uncomplicated paintings that thrilled America for sixty years--from his deathless "Four Freedoms" and "Willie Gillis G.I." series to h is panoply of civil rights, baseball, young love and Christmas classics. This biogrpahy illustrates not only the artist and his paintings, but the nation as Rockwell helped shape it. Filled with the insights of experts and the people who knew Rockwell. A perfect delight.". Distributed by Lou Reda Productions.


These DVD-VHS videos:

Norman Rockwell: An American Portrait is a 60 minute 2002 video from V.I.E.W. Video is a PBS special, narrated by 3-time Emmy Award nominee Mason Adams. Norman Rockwell had a love affair with America. His poignant paintings captured the truths of daily life with a simple humane grace and greeted Americans from the cover of The Saturday Evening Post for over five decades. This documentary celebrates Rockwell's life and art, with interviews and commentary by art historians, close friends and the artist himself. "This notable documentary shows Rockwell was a perceptive social commentator of exceptional artistic skill and narrative power" (Entertainment Weekly). DVD: Bonus features include a Norman Rockwell biography, an art gallery and more.

Norman Rockwell. "Norman Rockwell's distinctive illustrations, glowing with the simple, noble character of average citizens, crystallized an image of 20th century American life." This 50 minute 1994 A&E Biography video "provides an intimate portrait of the artist and the man with interviews of friends and people he used as models and takes us on a tour of the Norman Rockwell Museum and his best-known images."

Norman Rockwell: Painting America is an 86 minute 1999 American Masters Production from Winstar Home Entertainment.based on the award-winning PBS series. Norman Rockwell: Painting in America looks at the life and art of one of America's most celebrated illustrators. Best known for his memorable covers of The Saturday Evening Post, Rockwell achieved unprecedented fame for masterfully showing warmth and humor in his renderings of everyday life. This program includes interviews with artists, critics, historians, friends and admirers, as well as archival newsreel and television footage of the artist himself. VHS/DVD. Click here to view an extended clip of the video.

Norman Rockwell's World: An American Dream is a 24 minute 1972 video directed by Robert Deubel that presents the world of American illustrator Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) through reenactment, stills, paintings, and old film footage. Rockwell himself narrates this Academy Award®-winning film. Using the artwork and the commentary of Rockwell himself in combination with old film footage and staged reenactments, the Saturday Evening Post covers once again come alive.

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