30 November 2009

Norman Rockwell and History Painting

NPR and Time have both run stories about a new exhibit/book from the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge that discusses the painter’s use of photographs in detail. Not that Rockwell hid the fact that he used photos as well as live models and his imagination.

NPR interviewed a photographer who occasionally worked with Rockwell but looked down on his method and results—specifically disliking “the tracing techniques and saccharine subject matter.” (And yet he kept working with the man.)

It’s clear from looking at the photos alongside Rockwell’s finished art that he didn’t just trace what he’d had photographed. He tweaked poses, fabrics, settings, poses, and facial features and expressions to produce the image he wanted—usually a much more dramatic one than what the cameras had recorded. He may have traced details, but he chose which details to trace.

As for subjects, Rockwell worked for money and mass reproduction. He worried about being thought a mere “illustrator” instead of an artist. Of course, when he made paintings for Tom Sawyer, he was working as an illustrator. As was Leonardo da Vinci when he created his Last Supper or Henry Fuseli when he painted Titania Awakening, now at the Tate Gallery. They were all illustrating well known texts.

Rockwell’s best known paintings weren’t inspired by written stories, however. Rather, he used his composition and details, his titles, and his viewers’ knowledge to tell new stories in graphic form. And indeed he often aimed for emotional effects, even easy laughs and sugary uplift. But that’s what made Rockwell both popular and a chronicler of his nation’s values.

I think that part of Rockwell’s work has to be judged according to a standard the art world discarded in the late 1800s after it had had a long run at the very top of the heap—the history painting or genre painting.

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