Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Defining the Territory I: Rockwell Addendum


I received the following via email from Jeff Pike:
Last week I was in Hannibal [Missouri] and revisited the Rockwell originals for the Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn editions he illustrated. As I recall, they were an important commission for Rockwell – just back from a depressive cure in Paris. One can readily see the early modernist influence (most especially Degas) to Rockwell’s standard visual vocabulary, most particularly in the Huck Finn work. There are powerfully painted passages to be sure. I know he worried about his relationship with the “fine arts”, ultimately dismissing the heavily one-sided argument by publicly claiming “only to be an illustrator.” I was reminded how little actual illustration (that is, text inspired) he made, and your observation of the majority of his work being genre painting within the European tradition.

The last bit is a reference to a footnote in my essay from the Ephemeral Beauty: Al Parker and the American Women's Magazine 1940-1960 catalogue:
Norman Rockwell was really a genre painter who worked for a commercial audience—a kind of visual Dickens, as opposed to an illustrator—insofar as he proposed almost all of his own content. Art directors assign projects to illustrators in response to particular project needs and expect tailored solutions to solve the given communication problem. Rockwell was in position to determine his own content in response to very general project needs, like seasonal ones.

The reference to Dickens I meant by analogy. It turns out that Dickens was, in fact, a huge influence on Rockwell. His father Waring Rockwell read chapters aloud beginning around 1902, when the young artist was eight. Laura Claridge devotes an entire chapter to it in her biography: "A Dickensian Sensibility." Norman Rockwell: A Life. The Modern Library, 2003. Copyright 2001. Pages 52-63.

I'd post one of the Norman Rockwell Huck Finn illustrations, but have not been able to locate a decent digital copy for said purpose. Please send me one if you should come across it.

Image: Norman Rockwell, The Art Critic, Saturday Evening Post Cover, April 16, 1955.

1 comment:

John Hendrix said...

The Rockwell retrospective at the Guggenheim was given the same treatment, and people really missed how much the commentary was his own because of the word illustration. I saw a Hopper process show that dedicated a room to his early career (as an illustrator) which was much of the same themes in his paintings, but this time in magazines.