If you are an artist and people all over the world know your name, and you have millions of fans then you would think that at the very least you would be viewed as a serious artist. I mean how many contemporary artists can the average person even name anymore. It is a strange phenomenon, this success without critical recognition, but there are two contemporary painters that personify this strange occurrence, and I will talk about them both in this two-part blog.
Norman Rockwell is a household name, and considered to be a great painter by almost everyone excluding of course art critics, and perhaps even himself. If you asked Rockwell what he was he would most likely say that he was an illustrator, as he rarely called himself a painter. I think that this may stem from his military service in the U.S. Navy during WWI where he served as a military artist – not a job that he particularly wanted. The military rejected him at first, because standing at six feet tall and weighing 140 pounds he was considered underweight and unfit for service. He spent the night eating and drinking as much as he could, gorging until he finally weighed enough to be admitted. He wanted to see action, but the Navy decided they needed an artist more than another soldier so they told him to put away his rifle and to take out his brushes.
I believe this experience molded his painting style thereafter because in his work as a military artist the ability to capture both detail and mood was extremely important - both of these characteristics become defining elements of his work after the war. His way to contribute to his fellow soldiers was to give them an image that they could relate to; paintings that would both inspire and comfort them when they went into battle. When an artist tries to anticipate the tastes and preferences of his audience it is often considered pandering – I think in Rockwell’s case it is comes closer to patriotism. He wasn’t allowed to fight so instead he poured himself into his art, and tried to contribute in the only way he could. He sublimated his own artistic expression at times with what he felt his audience needed to see.
You can see this most clearly with the paintings that he did for himself alone; they are very different and often much darker and more somber than anything ever printed in the publications that published his work. This was a tumultuous time in our history because after WWI there was the Great Depression and following that of course WWII, Korea, the Civil rights struggle, and Vietnam – not to mention the ongoing cold war. I feel that when Rockwell left military service he saw a need from the American public that was very similar to what his fellow soldiers had required. The country needed the comfort that a certain nostalgia offered, to see that change (as depicted in his civil rights paintings) did not have to be forbidding, and that it was actually a good thing. I believe that Rockwell’s true art was not his paintings, but in the way that he connected with his audience to deliver the messages that he wanted to send. He had to get people to look before they could hear what he was saying, and ironically it is this very connection with his audience that critics often seem to view as unprofessional.