by Elizabeth Hand
American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30.00 (cloth)
Seventy years after the appearance of the Four Freedoms sequence, among Norman Rockwell’s best-known works, the artist continues to be derided as an assembly-line purveyor of sentimental kitsch, a victim of his own popularity and of the changing tastes of the late twentieth century.
But that judgment isn’t damning. A National Gallery of Art exhibition recently featured his paintings from the collections of George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg. And on December 4, seven of his paintings went on the block at Sotheby’s, where his Saying Grace netted $46 million, tripling the previous record for a Rockwell sale.
Today viewers can admire Rockwell’s humor and eye for detail while dismissing the end result as saccharine and self-consciously folksy, embodying a mid-century patriotism and optimism that most Americans no longer feel or even recognize. For instance, nearly all of the figures in his pre-1960s work were white. His masters at the Saturday Evening Post, the magazine whose covers he illustrated from 1916 until 1963, refused to let him depict African Americans in anything but subservient roles.
Image Credit: Norman Rockwell's studio in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith.