Norman Rockwell: The Outsider


Norman Rockwell, Girl At the Mirror (1954)

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) was a famous American illustrator who enjoyed enormous popularity in the middle of the 20th Century. His output was large, comprising some 4,000 works, the best known being illustrations produced for the Saturday Evening Post. For many Americans he set the standard for illustration-cum-painting, providing them with a regular art exhibition in their own homes. He developed an impressive, almost photographic technique, capable of tackling any subject matter, but particularly the human figure in its natural setting in small town America. Had he lived in the Netherlands in the 16th Century, it is not too far fetched to imagine him representing peasant life in the manner of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

With this comparison we can pose the question: why is Bruegel revered as one of the world’s greatest painters while Rockwell is barely admitted into the pantheon of 20th Century American painters? Robert Hughes, author of American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, says:

By 1925 Rockwell was a national name, and by the end of the Depression [Rockwell] was an institution.

Very few people saw his original work, only in the form of reproductions, but this is often the case today when famous works of art are readily available in art books or on computer screens. Hughes dismisses Rockwell as “homelier than apple pie, more American than the flag, and more affirmative than Dad.”

It is obvious that Rockwell was almost completely unaffected by the revolutionary developments in painting that occurred during his lifetime. Edward Hopper (1882 – 1967) was a near contemporary painter who also represented American life in a realist manner, albeit with some degree of abstraction, expressing a polar opposite in feeling to Rockwell’s oeuvre. Hopper’s figures manifest coldness, alienation, separateness, and uncertainty while Rockwell’s are cheerful, sociable and full of warmth. Most artists in the 20th Century have found it necessary to distance themselves from mainstream society, whereas Rockwell placed himself at the very heart of middle American values, allowing himself just a few humorous digs now and then at the naivety of the young or the conservatism of the older generation. He was, therefore, very much an insider to his large audience while being excluded from the avant-garde of American artists.

This type of criticism pertains to subject matter rather than purely aesthetic values. It is clear that Rockwell, consciously or not, was a propagandist for the culture of small town America, and was constrained in his choice of subject matter by the editors of the Saturday Evening Post. He had a job to do and he did it well, using a highly developed technique. If we examine Rockwell’s best work, it is evident that he was a master of composition, a subtle colourist and an excellent draftsman of the human figure. In addition, he was an acute social observer whose eye for detail was obsessive and nearly pathological. Unlike the Victorian moralist painters, such as Holman Hunt and Everett Millais, Rockwell’s sentimentality is often muted or restrained. Behind his work there is a second, hidden meaning that counteracts the more obvious messages of patriotism and the goodness of American folks. Rockwell’s people don’t know a great deal but they want to learn and help their fellow human beings. Clearly, Norman Rockwell had faith in the goodness of human nature and was, to that extent, an optimist.


Norman Rockwell, Saying Grace (1951)

Rockwell’s works were often complex in construction as well as very detailed. In the painting Saying Grace (1951), the colours are muted browns through to black, with a few dusty reds on the seats of the chairs. The umbrellas tell us it is raining outside, confirmed by the grey of the almost invisible monochrome street seen through the restaurant window. The inclusion of three partial figures cleverly suggests movement, as customers move about the rather homely café.

In the foreground, an older woman sits opposite two youths, head bowed in prayer; her grandson (we may assume) perches beside her in a likewise manner. The crocodile skin bag, umbrella and fedora by them and the jacket draped over the window seat suggest a departure of some sort; perhaps they just saw Dad off to war. There is a story here–the smoking youth looks on curiously, and we realize that saying grace is no longer practiced by the younger generation. The other onlookers seem similarly surprised by this public act of piety. In the messy, claustrophobic space, the chairs are put to good use defining the depth of the room, as is the table at which the nearest diner sits, with his cutlery leading the eye to the old lady. The realism of Saying Grace is not only photographic in its rendering of the luggage, the table condiments and the food scraps but the painting achieves a naturalness of bodily and facial expression in the subjects as well.


Edward Hopper, Office By Night (1945)

Edward Hopper’s Office by Night (1940) shows a man and his secretary working late. The large expanse of white wall and the impersonal office furnishings create a disturbing atmosphere. As in Rockwell’s work, objects like the typewriter are treated in realistic if rather clunky detail. The surface meaning of the painting is clear from the voluptuous treatment of the secretary’s body, which stands in stark contrast to the severe angularity of the filing cabinet. She looks out at the viewer rather than the man at his desk, who appears to be studying some papers. The office partition, with its open doorway suggests a confessional or an invitation to enter the alcove or to simply go home. The open window into the night removes the possibility of an intimate encounter. There is a great deal more ambiguity with Hopper than with Rockwell, but neither should be taken at face value. Rockwell’s world does not hide poverty or the problems of old age or youth, but provides comfort that the world shown is probably not as bad as it seems. Hopper, on the other hand, expresses the unsatisfactoriness of modern life with no comfort for the viewer whatsoever.

Despite the sparseness of Hopper’s “office” and the rather unpleasant browns and greens, the abstract arrangement of the various rectangles provides great strength to the design, leaving Rockwell’s restaurant rather weak and cluttered by comparison. While Rockwell demonstrates superior technical ability, Hopper displays the virtues of simplification so rigorously worked out by the discipline of abstract painting. He provides enough subtlety to satisfy the eye: the shadow on the blind with its faint creases; the shadows on the carpet and from the desk lamp; and the mysterious reflection on the wall behind the figures that suggest a light source coming from behind the viewer.

Rockwell has been compared to Charles Dickens; Hopper’s paintings are more like Kafka. This comparison between the two suggests that Hopper stands higher in the American pantheon of painters than Norman Rockwell because he places more emphasis on the aesthetic values he derived from Manet and Degas, and perhaps Andrew Wyeth. Hopper’s work also influenced later generations of American painters, whereas Rockwell less so; Rockwell’s influence was, and still is, on illustrators.


Norman Rockwell, The Homecoming Marine (1945)

One of Rockwell’s best-known works, entitled The Homecoming (1943), perfectly conveys the idea of social cohesion, and togetherness, common to American culture. A young marine has returned from the Japanese War, and we see from the newspaper cutting on the wall that he is a local hero. His expression is worried and uncertain, perhaps because of the horrors he has seen or because he must return to the front again.

There is no hint about the wider meaning of the war, just the suggestion that the young hero is serving the community he has briefly rejoined, represented by his circle of companions. This is not triumphalism but a more rueful reflection on the realities of a country at war. If the work contains elements of propaganda, then it is understated. We may assume the young boys in the picture, after serving as Boy Scouts, will go to war in Korea without a second thought.

The pictorial design is excellent; the viewer’s eye is guided by a diagonal line that runs from the red of the flag to the star on the wall. Also, if you draw an arrow through the eyes of the small boy at the front, the hero and the guy on the bench it leads straight to the eyes on the poster on the wall. The remaining colours are muted, and nary an Old Glory in sight. Let me also point out here that Rockwell contributed to the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s with pictures like Southern Justice (1965), which would have influenced many people in his vast audience to vote in favour of integration.


Pieter Bruegel, Peasant Dance (1945)

The rather unfair question posed at the beginning of this essay was why Pieter Breugel, who illustrated the life and times of the common people, was a better painter than Norman Rockwell.

The painting shown above is entitled, Peasant Dance. The villagers are socializing in a rather hedonistic way, but the painter has made no attempt to empathize with these clodhoppers, depicting their good cheer and peevishness in an equally unbiased manner. This is certainly realism, right down to the broken jug handle in the foreground, and those carefully rendered oak leaves that are easily recognizable.

Notable design features are the angle of the roof carried through the angle of the bagpipes and the piper’s leg, taking the eye through to the pattern of the black shoes. The running couple in the foreground move into the picture from right to left along this diagonal path. Notice also the repetition of the yellow of the apron on the gable of the distant house, the same spatial device used by Rockwell in The Homecoming. The many patches of white linen catch the eye and make it dance about, contributing to the motion of the dancing figures. Finally, the range and depth of colouring and tone contributes to the mass of the figures, and the earthiness of peasant life.

The question can now be put. Regardless of the fame of the artist or financial value of the work, which painter’s work would you like to have on your wall: Rockwell, Hopper or Breugel?

The criteria for such a decision are many but in the end it comes down to gut feeling plus acquired artistic taste. All the paintings referred to are available in reproduction, so the choice is a real possibility.

Maybe Rockwell’s lasting contribution to American culture was that he documented best what average Americans thought of themselves in the first half of the 20th Century. Norman Rockwell was perhaps the greatest American illustrator of his age, but an artist who sacrificed his exceptional talents to conformist ideas and the constraints of commercial publishing. However, he would have been gratified to learn that The Homecoming was sold in 2006 for $9.2m, a fact that may carry more weight with some than its artistic merits deserve.

TTcutTony Thomas was born in England in 1939, and is a retired bureaucrat living in Brisbane, Australia. He has an Australian wife, two adult daughters, a dog and a cat. He holds a degree in economics from the University of Queensland. His interests are catholic, and include: writing fiction, poetry, and blogging political diatribes. Other abiding interests include political and social philosophy, with occasional forays into logic and the foundations of mathematics.