Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Low Standards of Norman Rockwell's Critics

Front Porch Republic has published an article of mine criticizing Rockwell's critics.  The job of criticizing Rockwell's critics is both easy and difficult.  Easy, because they so often say things that are just entirely obviously false.  Difficult, because so many of them say such things so often.  It's awfully hard to keep up.

In this piece, "The Low Standards of Norman Rockwell's Critics," I focus on a recent review of the Rockwell exhibition in Tampa.  

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Duck Fever

Most of Rockwell's best-known pictures were made for the Saturday Evening Post.  But that doesn't mean that most of his best pictures were made for the Saturday Evening Post.  My favorite Rockwell wasn't, just for example.  It's all too easy to restrict your attention to the best-known pictures, but you can't understand Rockwell without looking elsewhere.

Rockwell himself broke his work up into four categories: magazine covers, illustrations, calendars and advertising.  (Get a copy of How I Make a Picture, which I mention here, to see what he has to say about this.)

His illustrations often gave him an opportunity to work in formats he couldn't do on magazine covers--strong horizontal compositions, for example.

(That's him there on the left.  No, not the crazy looking guy with the big mustache.  The other guy.)

But even his advertising images were often extremely good.  I would have thought he'd be least inclined to really work hard on a picture for a straight-up ad.  But Rockwell didn't work that way.  He generally went far beyond what could be reasonably expected of him.  Now, I do not think the picture I'm about to discuss is one of his best.  It's a fun picture, but not a masterpiece.  But I do think it is better than most of the Post covers he was making at the same time.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Edward Knippers and the Episcopalian Imagination

I've been meaning to write a post about Ed Knippers since before I actually started this blog.  A recent interview on Prosblogion with Jennifer Frey has prompted me to get around to it.

Frey, a philosopher at South Carolina, says, "Embodiment is a huge theme in my work, and one of the things that drew me to Aristotelian-Thomism in the first place is the attention paid to the fact that we are a certain kind of material animal, and that we shouldn’t entertain wild fantasies about ourselves that ignore this or downplay it."

Then she goes on to say that her goal as a philosopher is to resurrect a hylemorphic picture of human beings.  Since I happen to be writing a book with precisely the same goal, I find this encouraging and congenial!  But this isn't a post about hylemorphism.  It's a post about painting.

Ed Knippers doesn't have a lot to say about hylemorphism, but his painting is strongly oriented toward human embodiment, with particular focus on the Incarnation.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

An Original Rockwell

I bought my daughter an original Rockwell for her birthday last year.  You might assume that, like most other poor academics, such a magnificent gift would be beyond my means.  But I am a clever one, and I got ahold of this picture on Ebay for less than $20.

The image is one of the illustrations for "The Story of Louisa May Alcott," published in serial form in the Ladies Home Companion in 1937 and 1938.

In fact, I've been holding out on you.  I've got two other original Rockwells.  One is an image he made for a postcard for the Knights of Columbus in 1919.  The other--here's the real stunner!--is the original "Shuffleton's Barbershop."  All easily purchased on a professor's salary.  A professor with five kids.

Here's how I did it.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Still Causing Trouble

Willie Gillis may strike you as a nice, sweet boy.  But he has a history of causing trouble.

Oops!  Seventy years on, and Willie Gillis is still causing problems.  Although, to be fair, this time around Willie himself can't be blamed.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Attention to Detail

Howard Pyle can be viewed as Rockwell's master in the craft of illustration.  No, Rockwell did not study under him.  Pyle died when Rockwell was a very young art student, in 1911.  But Pyle was the most respected illustrator of his day, and Rockwell definitely sought to emulate him.  This meant not merely learning to paint as well as the master, but also learning his approach to illustration.  Pyle-style illustrators do not work out of pure imagination.  If they mean to illustrate a story about pirates, they don't dream up a pirate ship out of their own minds.  They go and find out what pirate ships really would have looked like.  And they paint that.  They are realists in a strong sense.

Rockwell followed this approach to a fault in his early career.  If you page through a chronological collection of his pictures, such as Christopher Finch's 332 Magazine Covers, you will see that a great many of Rockwell's works up until the early 40's (by which time Rockwell was nearly 50 years old) were costume numbers--colonial maidens, pirates, cowboys, and other such characters.  He had an enormous collection of costumes and other props stashed in his studio, and he liked to put them to use.

In 1943, he lost his studio, all the props, and sadly a great number of his paintings, in a fire.  After the fire, bereft of his massive costume collection, Rockwell more or less stopped with the costume pictures and started making his masterpieces instead.  Thank heavens nobody was hurt, but...thank heavens for the fire.

Despite more or less giving up on the costume pictures, Rockwell never did turn his back on his attention to detail, or to his obsessive commitment to getting the picture right.  And sometimes the pressure to get it right weighed on him.  His many fans would scour his pictures for mistakes, and write him letters excoriating him when they found some.  And find them they did.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Religious Imagery in Norman Rockwell Paintings

This is a reprint of a piece I published awhile back at Crisis Magazine.  The original is here.

Contrary to a widespread misconception, Norman Rockwell was not a conventionally religious man. He was raised Episcopalian and spent many boyhood hours in church serving in the choir. But as an adult, Rockwell did not belong to a church at all, and seems to have entirely walked away from any kind of regular religious devotion. So where does this widespread misconception come from?

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Books about Rockwell

Suppose you are interested in Rockwell.  And suppose that for you, being interested in X generally means (among other things) you need to read a lot of books about X.  If that's your situation, you may head over to and try searching for "Norman Rockwell" books.  Not a bad start, but you'll get a huge pile of listings, many of them for books that are not very good.  So I thought I'd give you some pointers.  I am helpful.

These are the best places to start.

1. My Adventures as An Illustrator, by Norman Rockwell, as told to Tom Rockwell.  Rockwell's autobiography, and a must-have.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Rockwell's Cop and Race

Rockwell's art has been parodied a million times, cleverly, stupidly, respectfully, cruelly, comically, angrily--virtually every way imaginable.  Particularly susceptible to parody, it seems, is the iconic "Freedom From Want."  But recently, another of Rockwell's works has stepped to the fore:

This was a Saturday Evening Post cover in 1958.  Cops don't seem to have quite the same public image these days.  I've seen multiple parodies of the Rockwell painting--I don't have the time or inclination to try to find out who was first to come up with the idea, but it's a popular one.

I can recall three similar pictures, though a few moments on Google only turns up two.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Rockwell and Annigoni paint JFK

Norman Rockwell was enthusiastic about modern art.  He always held Picasso, for example, in very high regard.  At risk of alienating readers before they even arrive--the mechanism there I leave to you to work out--I will admit that I do not share that opinion.  When I think of the giants of 20th century art, I tend to think instead of people like Pietro Annigoni.

And, now that I stop to reflect a bit, I think of Norman Rockwell, too.  So it's a happy coincidence that both of these great artists painted John F. Kennedy.  Rockwell actually painted Kennedy at least 3 times.  Annigoni only once, for the cover of the Time Magazine issue declaring Kennedy 1961's "Man of the Year."

Let's compare and see what we can learn.

Sunday, March 1, 2015 Favorite Rockwell

Apologies for the title.  This is a companion post to "My Least Favorite Rockwell," so I couldn't just call it "My Favorite Rockwell."  It wouldn't have the proper symmetry.

In an upcoming post, I will talk about one of his best paintings: "Shuffleton's Barbershop."  And I'm tempted to say that's my favorite.  But as much as I love that picture, I have to say that of all the Rockwell canvases I have seen, one of them stands out as having been perhaps the most stunningly beautiful.

This picture, sometimes called "Christmas in Bethlehem," sometimes called "Uneasy Christmas in the Birthplace of Peace," and probably sometimes called other things still--Rockwell didn't name his pictures, so it's a bit of a free for all--was published in Look Magazine in 1970.

It's been several years since I saw it, and I might revise my opinion whenever I get to see it again.  But for now, thinking back on this picture--which I saw in a traveling exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Art--I remember finding the golden glow so warm and rich that I was overwhelmed by it.  This is a painting that should convince anyone of Rockwell's extraordinary power.

The picture is fascinating to me as a critic obsessed with the "meaning" of pictures.  Perhaps in a future post I'll talk about that side of things.  But for today, I just want to hold this up before you as a Rockwell canvas that can be appreciated without getting into the narrative at all.  It's simply a beautiful painting.  You should go see it.

Floridians, I believe it may be at the Tampa Museum of Art at the moment in a traveling exhibition called American Chronicles, which opens on March 7.