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.
Rockwell painted (almost exclusively) for publication.  His canvases were not ends in themselves.  They were a means to an end.  The end was the production of a story illustration, a magazine cover, or a post card (among other things).  The story illustrations, the magazine covers, the postcards, and so on--these are Rockwell's finished artworks.  And they can be found pretty cheap, as I have discovered.  The canvases are like photographic negatives: central, essential elements leading to the production of the finished artworks.  But not the artworks themselves.

At least, that's how it has always seemed to me.  If the whole goal of making the picture is to get it on the cover of the Post (say), then the Post cover is the work of art.

I still tend to think that's correct.  But there are a couple of pieces of evidence to the contrary that have to be considered.  First, Rockwell framed his paintings before he sent them off to the printer.  This is a bit of a mystery, and I'm not sure he ever explained to anyone exactly why he did it.  (It wasn't standard practice, I believe, among illustrators at the time.)  He was amazingly careless of his finished paintings once they'd been reproduced--leaving them stacked in his studio, or giving them away willy nilly to friends or acquaintances, as I mention here--but on their way off to the printer, he always framed them.

Second, and more importantly, the truth is that you cannot possibly hope to really appreciate a Rockwell simply by looking at an original Post cover, or an original page from a 1937 issue of Ladies Home Companion.  You have to see the canvas.  I didn't fully realize this until I saw "Christmas in Bethlehem."  The reproduction is a very nice picture.  The canvas, however, is a show-stopper.  It takes your breath away.  That's not a mere means.

"The Art Critic" is a different kind of case.  Here, the canvas is not shockingly dissimilar from reproductions, but there is one obvious difference--when you look at the canvas, you can see that the white paint on the "critic's" palette is piled on deep.  I think the pile of white paint stands out nearly an inch off the surface of the canvas.  I've got an idea about why Rockwell did that (and I explain that in my recent article in Crisis), but that's not the point for now.  For now, the point is that in the printed version, you simply cannot see the paint piled up.  It disappears.  So why did Rockwell do it, knowing (as of course he did) that it wouldn't show up?

The answer, I suppose, is that while the photographic negative is a mere means, Rockwell's canvases were not mere means.  He viewed them as ends in themselves.  I expect that's why he had them framed.  And yet, as I said, he was very careless of them once their job was done.  It's a puzzle.

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