YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Art Review

Judging Rockwell by His Covers

The famed illustrator's work springs most vividly to life on the printed page, not canvas.


SAN DIEGO — The best part of "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People" comes midway through the show, after we've been through two rooms that introduce some of the ways in which the famous Yankee illustrator went about creating his reassuring visual narratives. A long, tall gallery wall, the biggest one in the San Diego Museum of Art's temporary exhibition galleries, is covered with row after row of Saturday Evening Post magazine covers--not the paintings Rockwell made to be reproduced on those covers, but the actual covers themselves, neatly framed and behind glass. There are 322 covers in all, many still bearing a mailing label printed with Rockwell's address in Stockbridge, Mass. Suddenly, what had been a rather dry and ponderous presentation springs into energetic life.

The Rockwell retrospective opened noisily at the High Museum in Atlanta a year ago and now it's midway through a national tour, which will culminate next November at New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. In the hubbub swirling around the controversial and popular show, which chronicles an artist who has always been adored by a general audience but largely dismissed by the art public, it's been easy to lose track of Rockwell's art.

Rockwell's achievement as an artist is not found in the 58 oils on canvas that fill the seven galleries of the show, which has been organized according to a variety of themes ("Inventing America," "Celebrating the Commonplace," etc.) rather than chronologically. The oil paintings are steps along the way toward making the work of art, like a photographer's negatives or a printmaker's plates. They're obviously central to the artistic process, but they're not the main event.

Rockwell's actual art appears on the printed page, on that jampacked wall of rambunctious magazine covers, with their lively little stories of everyday events aggressively competing with one another for audience attention. The effect is heightened by the display's loose similarity to a magazine stand. The artist's genius was in knowing how to get from pencil and paper to oil on canvas to translucent inks on paper, all in a way that would make that cover sing out, Pick me!

The first Saturday Evening Post cover Rockwell illustrated set a standard he would elaborate for the next 50 years. Dated May 20, 1916, the picture shows three young boys, two dressed in sand-lot baseball garb and cheerfully razzing the third, who is dressed in a Sunday suit and bowler hat and pushes a wicker baby carriage (a glimpse of red bootee and frilly bonnet suggests the unseen baby is a girl). A look of glum humiliation marks his furrowed face. The three are stock characters from American literature--think Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn torturing goody-two-shoes Sidney or, later, assorted cinematic Dead End Kids and Little Rascals. Rockwell has fitted them to his time.

Nearby, the painting that formed the basis of the cover shows some of how he got there. On the canvas, whose background is white, the carefully rendered boys exist in an abstract and undifferentiated space. Two parallel black bars run horizontally across the painting near the top, just behind the three boys' hats, providing a graphic illusion of shallow layering. The bars also help to pin the picture to the flat, white, abstract surface.

As art, the painting elevates ordinary childhood cruelty to the stature of endearing moral philosophy. But that doesn't happen on the magazine cover. There, the addition of the words "Saturday Evening Post" above the nameplate's regular black bars helps to dramatize the scene. Is there a story about the scenario inside? Does it represent a current social issue? How are we to feel in relation to the subject?

The flattened picture pops into shallow relief, more like a carved antique Roman marble than a two-dimensional painting. The white space is transformed from a gauzy abstraction into the physical stuff of a magazine page, which can be held in the hands, turned and even thrown away. The translucent colored inks of the printing process allow light to pass through and reflect off the page, further adding subtle animation to a scene that, in tightly painted oils, reads as static and inert.


The difference between the painting and the cover is like flicking on a light switch. The painting's solemn celebration of ordinary childhood meanness is lifted out of the queasy realm of high-minded morality, where it grates against individual memory. It lands instead in the raucous commercial sphere, where competition, change and the lively fight for civilizing order are played out in modern mercantile society.

In 1916, when Rockwell painted "Boy With Baby Carriage," the United States was reeling from the pressures of extraordinary social forces, including massive immigration, the final transformation of a rural nation into an urban one and the end of international isolationism as Europe dissolved into the unspeakable horror of modern warfare. As fear rose, heels dug in.

Los Angeles Times Articles