Common places never become tiresome. It is we who become tired when we cease to be curious and appreciative. – Norman Rockwell
Depicting the beauty, excitement and hope in the ordinary everyday experiences of families and communities was something Norman Rockwell did so well! Yesterday my niece Amanda and I visited the Rockwell exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. This is the first time an exhibit of Rockwell originals has been to Canada and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see it. Rockwell paints scenes that are so familiar, the viewer cannot help but feel a strong personal connection with his art.
Even when he is promoting a ‘big idea’ with his work he sets it in everyday circumstances. In this painting entitled Freedom of Speech he shows an ordinary citizen standing up to give his opinion at the annual town meeting.
Although I recognized many of the Rockwell paintings like Saying Grace where a grandma takes time to pray with her grandson before their meal in a busy restaurant, I did learn some interesting new things about Rockwell by listening to the excellent audio tour of the exhibit that came with the price of admission.
I learned that Rockwell, who completed over 300 cover illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post was not afraid to make controversial statements about social issues with his work. In his painting called The Problem We All Live With he shows a young black girl being escorted to an all white school by deputy marshalls. Someone has written NIGGER on the wall, as well as the letters KKK, and a tomato has been thrown at the child narrowly missing her pristine white dress. Rockwell received many irate letters from people who disagreed with racial integration after this painting appeared on the cover of LOOK magazine. This painting hangs just outside President Barack Obama’s office in the White House.
In his work entitled The Golden Rule Rockwell movingly portrays the value of diversity and the importance of religious, ethnic and racial tolerance.
Another new thing I learned about Rockwell were his connections to many well-known people. He was good friends with American painter Grandma Moses. In a painting called A Christmas Homecoming he used Grandma Moses as the model for the grandmother in the painting.
Rockwell counted Walt Disney as a friend and the two exchanged letters with one another. Rockwell dedicated a cover called Girl Reading the Post to Walt Disney and presented it to him as a gift.
Rockwell also painted portraits of a number of presidents including John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.
I didn’t know Norman Rockwell was a big fan of Charles Dickens. His father used to read Dickens aloud to him and some of his paintings were clearly inspired by Dickens like Merrie Christmas Dancing Under the Mistletoe.
Norman Rockwell said “I paint life the way I’d like it to be.” And although that was true Rockwell does subtly remind viewers that life isn’t always like we want it to be. In Freedom From Fear loving parents are tucking their children into bed, but the Dad is holding a newspaper where the front page story is about the Battle of Britain. In England at the time families lived in fear of bombings, and many children in London had been evacuated to live away from their parents. The lives of those British children weren’t idyllic or free from fear.
I didn’t know there is an official word in the English language which originates from Rockwell’s paintings. It is Rockwellian and means harmony in personal relationships or opting for idealism.
What next? The Norman Rockwell Exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery runs till May 20th. I just may return to learn even more about one of America’s most well-known artists and illustrators.
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