Norman Rockwell: An artisan, not an artist

A new exhibition of Rockwell's illustrations shows he was a skilled oil painter, but his relentless optimism soon starts to grate, says Adrian Hamilton

Dulwich Picture Gallery has chosen to launch its centenary celebrations for 2011 with an exhibition of the US illustrator, Norman Rockwell. Not everyone's choice for such an important year, admittedly.

On this side of the Atlantic at least, and to the taste of most art critics in America, Rockwell tends to be dismissed as a schmaltzy sentimentalist, the man who reflected middle America as it wanted to be seen – patient, well-intentioned and humorous – rather than as it was during the years of depression and war.

And yet it is a choice that fits the Gallery's policy of developing self-generated exhibitions of areas and artists that the bigger galleries and conventional tastes have ignored. In recent years it has particularly concentrated – for reasons of commercial support as much as artistic taste, one sometimes suspects – on American artists and illustrators in particular. Saul Steinberg, N C Wyeth and family and Winslow Homer have all been subject to individual, and good, exhibitions over the past few years.

Rockwell at least has the virtue of being probably (one never knows with changing generations) the best-known illustrator in America. An exhibition at this time also has the advantage of coming, in a postmodernist world, when there have been calls for his re-evaluation in the canon of American art. "Rockwell is terrific. It's become too tedious to pretend he isn't," wrote the New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl.

"Terrific" isn't the same thing as good, of course. Much of one's resistance to Rockwell's work comes not simply from the sense of his being too sentimental but because of the sheer polish of his finish, the glossiness not just of his figures but the glossiness of his view.

That may be unfair. Norman Rockwell, who did cover pictures for the US's most popular magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, from 1916 until 1963, never pretended to be anything other than an illustrator. "If it doesn't strike me immediately," instructed an early editor, "I don't want it. And neither does the public. They won't spend an hour figuring it out. It's got to hit them."

And that is what Rockwell did, so successfully that he increased the sales of the publication each time he did the cover. He could hardly be blamed for giving the reader what they wanted. It's an academic presumption that artists are there to subvert the prejudices of their audience. The point this exhibition, organised by American Illustrators Gallery, New York, with the National Museum of American Illustration (NMAI), is not to suggest that Rockwell was more than his professed trade but that he was supremely professional at it.

One surprise to me, and probably to many who visit the gallery, was that Rockwell painted all his illustrations in oils. He completed more than 5,000 of them, each preceded with careful drawings and sketches. Photographs of him at work, and his own drawing of himself, show him with his easel pinned with photographs and scraps as he worked on the final compositions.

With considerable effect, Dulwich places the oils and sketches along the right of the series of rooms, while on the left wall it presents a whole series of his magazine covers. The original works are fascinating, the colours fresh, the paintwork rapid and fluid. Painting in oils gave him the textures, particularly of the flesh, which make his work so warm in their realism when converted to the printed page. They also show how deeply versed he was in artistic tradition, particularly the work of the Flemish and Dutch masters, while the few watercolour sketches display a quickness of observation that makes them attractive in their own right.

Had Rockwell sold his paintings as paintings rather than illustrations he would, like Jack Vettriano, have been a highly popular artist and for similar reasons. He gives a simple, strong image that proposes a story that involves the viewer in imagining it. Rockwell's works never needed a caption, although they sometimes had one. They are, obedient to his editor's commands, self-explanatory on first view.

The element he adds, and the element that helped him achieve the fame that most of his contemporary illustrators lacked, was his sense of the humour of shared humanity. There is always in his work a certain wryness, the boy trying his first shave with the dog looking straight at the viewer, amazed at the action of his master; the lonely fisherman carrying on in the pelting rain, his pipe upside down to keep it dry; the two charwomen in the theatre reading the programme of a grand show they could never hope to see.

And at times he comes up with stunning compositions. There is one bird's eye view of a bridge game that shows not just the artist's assiduity in research to get the details right but also a geometry and confidence in colour that is quite startling in its freshness. Rockwell, driven by a fierce desire to be pre-eminent in his trade, however, never seems to have wanted to be an "artist" in the way that so many photographers privately try. He was a perfectionist in his craft not a creator searching for expression, as ready to undertake advertising commissions as illustrate romances.

Whether Rockwell's claim to lasting status is altogether helped in this exhibition by the great wall of covers facing his oil studies and finished paintings is doubtful. Most of his paintings work well in print, but when he is most inventive as a painter, as in the Bridge Game and the oil study for Breakfast Table Political Argument, the liveliness of his colours is lost on the page.

By the 1960s, Rockwell, whose wife had died, gave up the Saturday Evening Post to develop a different, more political type of illustration. It was partly out of a desire to engage with issues such as desegregation (he was on the side of civil rights out of an old-fashioned belief in equality) but also, I think, because Rockwell, who suffered bouts of severe depression, had achieved the success he had set out to gain, had written his memoirs, become a public figure and was losing his passion for perfection.

His attempt at political engagement only served to show up his limitations. He visited Africa and Russia for Look magazine. But his work is oddly stilted. As earlier Post covers tended to prove, Rockwell didn't really do anger or passion. He believed in politeness and a relentless optimism that becomes depressing when seen in volume. He lived on until 1978, but by then the world of magazines, as art, had spun way out of the ambit of his limited vision .

It's possible that a new age of recession will bring a revived appetite for his optimism and humour, as it did the last time round. But I can't see Rockwell ever being regarded as more than a supreme commercial artist of his time.

Norman Rockwell's America, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21 (020 8693 5254) to 27 March

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past