Friday, April 17, 2015

Rockwell was a New York City boy, you know

We generally think of Rockwell as a small town artist, but in fact, he's from New York City.  Manhattan-born in 1894.  His family used to escape the city when they could, taking little trips to stay with nearby farmers in the summer, taking weekend rides to the country at the end of the train lines, and so on.  And Rockwell always preferred the countryside to the city.

But he stayed near New York City for a long time.  His parents moved out of the city, first to Long Island, and later to New Rochelle (after an interval back in the city).  Rockwell lived in New Rochelle until 1938--well into his forties.  Then on to Vermont, and ultimately to Stockbridge, Mass.

It's not as though Rockwell never painted urban scenes.  Of course he did.  But even when he did, including some really good pictures, like the recently-sold "Walking to Church," or this lesser picture.

Since Rockwell was a people painter, in one sense it didn't matter what the setting was.  The painting was always about the people, not the place.  Although there's a distinction there that can't be pressed too hard.  The people in the pictures are doing something--and they're often doing country- or small-town-type things.  (Rather than riding subway trains, dodging muggers, or whatever else it is that you city folk do.)  At any rate, it seems to me that you can't locate in Rockwell an urban period and a rural period connected with where he lived.

On the other hand, a fairly significant artistic change occurred near the time of his move to the country.  In the mid-forties, after his Arlington studio burned to the ground.  Stored in his studio was his massive collection of costumes and props--the tools he used when he put together his historical pictures.  So many of Rockwell's earlier pictures were period pieces.  These pictures are often very charming, but I can't think of any that I'd put among his truly great works.  

Other critics have noted that Rockwell was set free from the costume pictures by the fire.  Thank goodness for that!  

Anyway, this little post is prompted by the news that there is a campaign underway to get a Manhattan street named after Rockwell.  And the campaign is not being led by elderly rural folks, descending on Manhattan with pitchforks or flintlocks in hand:

"The idea stemmed from a class project by a group of five juniors and seniors from Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School, an alternative school on West 102nd Street for students who've had trouble finishing high school."

Do these kids love Rockwell's artwork?  Do they simply think it's a matter of proper respect to name the street after such a famous former resident?  Is this all just the idea of the teacher, or are the kids really into it?  I don't know.

I do think one can go a bit too far in defending the idea of the name change.  Norman Rockwell Museum curator of education Tom Daly may have done that when he said "This [street renaming] is a great step forward to get Norman Rockwell connected back to the city he loved..."  Rockwell's autobiography makes it pretty clear that he did not especially love the city.  In fact, at least early on, he simply loathed it.  

But whether he loved the city or hated it, it seems his art can still perhaps speak to its residents.  

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