The Enduring Delight of Norman Rockwell’s America

Sep 22, 2016 9:12PM

Norman Rockwell (1894–1978) is synonymous with an idyllic version of America. Famously, much of his output went to the Saturday Evening Post, for which he produced more than 300 covers. However, though he was undoubtedly gifted, dedicated to his craft, and commercially successful, Rockwell’s critical reception was—and, to a lesser degree, still is—undercut by his chosen disinterest in abstraction, which then dominated the art world. At Heather James Fine Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, “The Artist at Work” shines a new light on his charming, unfailingly representational work.

As with the bulk of his oeuvre, these paintings, sketches, and works on paper are characterized by an idealized, nostalgic vision of America. Later in his career, however, a deeper sense of reality set in, as Rockwell presented politically charged work dealing with the divisions and inequalities that plagued America.

In addition to his Saturday Evening Post illustrations, the new show includes portraits of friends and acquaintances, oil sketches, commissioned illustrations, and studies for larger works. Of particular note are paintings Rockwell made from life rather than from photographs of his meticulously staged scenes.

Among the studies on view is The Fireman, Study for the Saturday Evening Post Cover (circa 1944), which shows the framed painting of a fireman scowling at the lit cigar placed hazardously close to his image. Study for Willie Gillis USO (circa 1942) centers on a young Army recruit who’s tipsy with delight at his being doted on by two gorgeous USO volunteers.

Then as now, Rockwell’s weak critical reception has not stanched the broad appeal of his work. In the right context, it’s remarkably easy to enjoy his depictions of hale and happy Americans, peaceful domestic scenes, and playfully mischievous school children, all illuminated by a wise, knowing sense of humor.

—Karen Kedmey

Norman Rockwell: The Artist at Work” is on view at Heather James Fine Art, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Jul. 1–Sep. 30, 2016.

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