Editor's note: The The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on September 8, 2009 with permission of the Nassau County Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Nassau County Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


The Remembrance of Things Past: Norman Rockwell at Nassau County Museum of Art

By Charles A. Riley II, PhD


Returning to Norman Rockwell, like re-visiting any national landmark, is as much an occasion for reflection upon change in one's self as it is upon re-examining the shifting but assured legacy of a monumental reputation. Rockwell in our time, and in this place (the Long Island of 2009), proves a potent catalyst of memory and a test of our ability to re-frame his massive influence in the context of the present. Surrounded by these animated scenes of American life from the Jazz Age through, amazingly, 1978 -- when the artist died at 84, an unfinished painting on his easel -- we cannot help smiling at the old stories, the familiar archetypes and comfortable homilies, all those Santas and small boys. But we also find ourselves asking: What has been lost? The deep nostalgia he inspires is our own more than his.

This generous and comprehensive survey of Rockwell's work in a wide range of media -- from the extraordinary bonus of having all 321 of the covers he did for the Saturday Evening Post from 1916 through 1963 to the major oils on canvas and revealing studies -- is an opportunity to grasp all of Rockwell as master of technique and innovator. We can also learn more about the man to dispel the myth. For one thing, he was no small-town bumpkin, even though his pastoral subject matter was observed in the New England towns, including Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where he maintained his studios. Rockwell was born and raised a New Yorker, lived for a while in Mamaroneck and New Rochelle and set up his first studio above a brothel on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The deft draftsmanship and confident palette were groomed at the National Academy School and later at the renowned Art Students League, where he learned composition from Thomas Fogarty as well as anatomy in the studio of George Bridgeman then prepped for his career as an illustrator in the classes of J.C. Leyendecker, Maxfield Parrish (note the lilac and gold echoes), N.C. Wyeth (father of Andrew) and Howard Pyle -- a veritable who's who of American illustration.

Rockwell was not a static historicist. He offered visual ballads to the present as he saw and heard it (the aural dimension of his dramas -- the chatter of the barbershop or clang of the horseshoe forge -- should not be overlooked). As with the poetry of Vachel Lindsay or the later songs of Paul Simon ("and measure what we've lost"), Rockwell's plangent tone in The Runaway (1922) or the wistful Choirboy Combing Hair for Easter (1954) delivers its emotional punch straight to the heart even in an age as cynical as ours. Nostalgia is nothing new in art history. The Victorians excelled at similar evocative realism, and there is more than a passing resemblance between some of the Pre-Raphaelites and Rockwell's narratives, especially the more ambitious paintings in this show. In German art, both the Nazarenes and the Romantics -- think of Caspar David Friedrich and his portrayals of friendship, practically drip with the longing for the past, while Parisians of Marcel Proust's era (that magician of memory) would view the interiors of Edouard Vuillard with a sigh of recollection for the honest warmth of those pre-telephone, gas-lit evenings. It is important to acknowledge, however, that the nostalgia bathing the Rockwell scenes may well be a golden light we cast ourselves -- in his times these were mirror images of the present.

Let's not forget Rockwell was a journalist at a time (now so distant) when print was king and competition for the cover slot at the nation's premier magazines was intense. It seems almost uncanny that the prodigious Rockwell scored his first cover of the outrageously successful national magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, at the tender age of 22, inaugurating a streak of popularity so prodigious that his signature style would in itself boost newsstand market share. His tenure was so long that Rockwell was still in the magazine game when another star illustrator made his debut with a strikingly different style-Peter Max. Whether on the graphic or the textual side of the magazine masthead, one of the great questions in journalism will always be point of view. The exhibition includes a genuine tour-de-force of point of view, a 1948 cover titled Bridge Game-The Bid, vertiginously captured from overhead as though the artist were straddling a ceiling fan over the game. The composition is all the more fascinating -- even shocking, in a way that sets us actively seeing and thinking -- because Rockwell has spun it cleverly on the vertical axis in a way that animates the rectangular format of the cover. It is masterful design as well as draftsmanship, and connoisseurs of color will appreciate the dynamic inter-play of primaries, that vibrant red square table top against those yellow seat covers and the bold stripes of the armchair. Any Bauhaus master would be proud of that palette!

Students of mass media will join art historians in appreciating Rockwell's swift mastery of the cover as genre. Very early in his career, as the meticulous Threading the Needle (1922) demonstrates, he had already arrived at that unmistakable clarity of method, a Dutch Old Master style that is the visual equivalent of a newsroom veteran who can rush to a Royal typewriter and fluently bang out a "lede" (first sentence) to a news story with his Fedora still on and his raincoat still wet while the copy boy readies to rush it to the printer. The patina of history may tint these covers today, but remember they were done on deadline, fresh from life studies and photos. At the same time Rockwell was delivering his clear, strong messages, including the powerful pro-integration frieze of a tiny African-American girl in a snowy white dress escorted to school he titled The Problem We All Live With (1964), another powerful voice in the nation's media was attaining a comparable level of eloquence. Here is a passage from Henry Louis Mencken's "On Being an American" that beautifully harmonizes with Rockwell: "One man likes the republic because it pays better wages than Bulgaria. Another because it has laws to keep him sober, pious and faithful to his wife. Another because the Woolworth Building is higher than the cathedral at Chartres. Another because Roosevelt could not leave the job to his son. Another because, living here, he can read the New York Journal. Another because there is a warrant out for him somewhere else. Me, I like it because it amuses me. I never get tired of the show. It is worth every cent it costs."

Meeting Norman Rockwell again here at Nassau County Museum, think of Henry Clay Frick paying a visit to the mansion he had given to his son as a wedding gift. Arriving early for supper, he settles into a wing chair by the fireside in the library and asks the butler if he could sneak a peek at the recently arrived edition of the Saturday Evening Post -- at the very moment each weekend when hundreds of thousands of other Americans enjoyed the same much-anticipated pleasure in those better days before television and the Internet. The cover he paused to savor is one among those in the gallery before you. It has returned home for a second look.


About the author

Charles A. Riley II, PhD is curator-at-large of the Nassau County Museum as well as an arts journalist and professor at the City University of New York. He is the author of more than two dozen books on art, architecture and public policy, including The Jazz Age in France, monographs on Peter Max, Arthur Carter and Ben Schonzeit, Art at Lincoln Center: The Public Art and List Print and Poster Collections, Color Codes: Modern Theories of Color in Philosophy, Painting and Architecture, Literature, Music, and Psychology, Sacred Sister (in collaboration with the noted avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson) and a chapter on Picasso in I Wish I'd Been There (Doubleday, 2008). He has written dozens of exhibition catalogue essays for shows in New York, Berlin, Moscow, Amsterdam and other locales, and articles on art for magazines, including Art & Auction and Antiques and Fine Art. He is a frequent media commentator on the art market and is a lecturer and tour guide for Cunard (aboard the Queen Mary 2), Art Horizons International, the Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Cosmopolitan and National Arts clubs, and museums and nonprofits including Lincoln Center. A graduate of Princeton with a doctorate from the Graduate Center, he resides in Manhattan and Cutchogue, New York.

(adapted from a biography of the author at http://www.nassaumuseum.com/events.htm with additional book title information from Amazon.com)


Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on September 8, 2009, with permission of the Nassau County Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on September 4, 2009.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Doris Meadows of the Nassau County Museum of Art for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

To view Resource Library's article for the related exhibition please click here.

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