Rockwell exhibit chronicles 20th century American spirit

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(Courtesy image) Norman Rockwell’s “The Doughboy and His Admirers”, Saturday Evening Post, Feb. 22, 1919 cover.

Norman Rockwell’s depictions of everyday life made him the best known and most beloved American artist of the 20th century. He lived and worked through one of the most eventful periods in the nation’s history and his paintings vividly chronicled those times. His images often served as a mirror of American life, reflecting not who we really were, so much as what we thought and felt – and what we subconsciously endeavored to become.

Norman Rockwell America exhibits a remarkable collection of 22 oil paintings, seven charcoal or graphite studies, original posters and all 323 vintage Saturday Evening Post magazine covers spanning six decades. This exhibition reviews selected works in chronological order, making the stages of his career recognizable and his images more poignant. These original works give the viewer a chance to see Rockwell’s accomplished technique and superb craftsmanship, which are sometimes overlooked in the more widely seen reproductions of his work.

“We are pleased to share these world-renowned works of American artist Norman Rockwell, whose themes about the American spirit still resonate with us today,” commented Wesley Jessup, Executive Director for the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.

Norman Rockwell’s America is organized by the National Museum of American Illustration. The exhibition has toured nationally and internationally. This is the first solo exhibition of Norman Rockwell’s paintings and magazine covers to visit the Inland Northwest.

Rockwell was a storyteller during a time when so-called “serious” art was neither narrative nor representational. His painted stories were folksy, humorous, and often topical, but Rockwell was more than just a chronicler of the times. He had a genius for knowing which stories to tell, how to tell them and what details to emphasize. It has been said that a Rockwell painting does not require an explanation, a caption or even a title. It speaks to us directly.

In 1943, the entire nation joined together when he created the Four Freedoms, four paintings depicting freedom of speech, freedom from want, freedom to worship and freedom of fear, which toured in an exhibition raising $135 million for the war effort through the sale of war bonds.

The Saturday Evening Post covers became Rockwell’s greatest legacy. Yet he parted ways in 1963 and began to work for Look magazine, where he had more creative freedom. The Look illustrations included his first socially conscious work concerning civil rights, space travel and other issues of national concern.

Some critics have called his art too sentimental to be taken seriously, but the fact that his work continues to resonate and find new audiences in the 21st century says something else. There is universality to his appeal, suggesting that Rockwell’s real subjects were not simply “grandfathers, puppy dogs – stuff like that,” as the artist once said, but something larger, if less tangible.

Although Rockwell is most associated with small-town America, he was in fact born and raised in New York City. At 21, he moved to New Rochelle, New York, to be near his idol, the notable illustrator and icon-maker, J.C. Leyendecker. He set up a studio and began to sell freelance work to magazines such as: Life, Literary Digest and Country Gentleman.

In 1916, at the age of 22, Rockwell painted his first cover for the prestigious Saturday Evening Post beginning a long (1916-1963) and fruitful relationship. Most readers immediately recognized his covers and responded well to the appealing and humorous portraits of American life. Readers became fans and followed his covers through the Depression years and World War II.

Rockwell lived the last 25 years of his life with his wife Molly in Stockbridge, Mass. On Nov. 8, 1978, he died in Stockbridge at the age of 84, leaving an unfinished painting on his easel. Norman Rockwell was a creator of American images that captured the country and ultimately the world.

Founded in 1916, the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture, popularly known as the “MAC,” is a Smithsonian-affiliated museum of regional history, culture and art. The museum’s extensive permanent collection of Plateau Tribal art and artifacts, regional art and historical objects, and its archives reflect the past, present and future of the Inland Northwest. The MAC presents changing exhibitions drawn from its collections, as well as traveling national exhibitions, all designed to educate, entertain, and engage people of all ages.


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