What a treat today, for my first. Spiva Center for the Arts has on loan the amazing Norman Rockwell exhibit, featuring 323 magazine covers from the Saturday Evening Post. Spanning 47 years, the covers not only showcase Rockwell’s talent but capture life in America during those years. Spiva is located at 222 W. 3rd Street, in Joplin, and has the exhibit until November 8, 2014.
I was very excited to view this exhibit. Norman Rockwell is one of America’s most well known and beloved artists. I am very familiar with some of the covers yet I looked forward to browsing the rest and enjoying more of these slice of life paintings. The art center had the covers arranged well, for viewing, with music from the period playing softly in the background. While photography was not allowed, and understandably so, it was very easy to find Rockwell’s work online and use samples for this blog post.
Norman Rockwell, 1894-1978, knew from an early age that he wanted to be an illustrator. Painting and drawing since childhood, Rockwell transferred from high school to the Chase Art School at the age of 14. He went on to the National Academy of Design and the Arts Student League. His first major breakthrough came at the age of 18 when he did his first book illustration for Tell Me Why: Stories about Mother Nature.
In 1912 he was hired as an artist for Boy’s Life, and the following year became the art editor, a position he held for three years. At the age of 21, in 1916, he sold his first cover to the Saturday Evening Post, a piece entitled Home Duty. At that time, the Post was a weekly publication that had been in existence for more than 100 years. Rockwell decided to go after the best, and to try where competition would be the strongest. He hand delivered two painted covers and a third sketch to Walter Dower, who was Post’s art editor. Dower bought the covers on the spot, asked Rockwell to complete the sketch and commissioned three more covers. Rockwell’s career was launched and the partnership with Post would continue for more than four decades.
Home Duty, Rockwell’s first Post cover
I enjoyed viewing his work. Grouped by decades, I could see the evolution of Rockwell’s work, from less colorful yet detailed pieces to rich, colorful paintings that included much detail in the backgrounds as well as with the subjects. What did not change over the years was Rockwell’s focus on people and the myriad aspects of their lives. Through Rockwell’s homey portraits I could glimpse life as it was lived, from 1916 through the 1960’s, when the illustrator left Post to design covers for Look. Optimistic, for the most part, whimsical, hopeful, Rockwell presented scenes that were both familiar and thought provoking. He often used children, youth and pets in his scenes and some of his best known covers portray the often rowdy yet innocent lives of the young and young at heart.
I saw the covers I expected to see, those that are so well known. The ones I studied the most were the ones unfamiliar to me. There were covers with clowns in them and adults dreaming of adventure. The joys and heartbreaks of love were captured on several covers, as were the challenges of family life and the trials of serving the country during wartime. Rockwell never focused on the negative. He allowed newspapers to carry those headlines and stories. He chose, instead, to celebrate life, and show his patrons what they themselves looked like and what they were capable of.
Christopher Finch, who wrote the introduction in the book, 50 Norman Rockwell Favorites, said, “The images he created have become part of the fabric of our popular culture. He held up a friendly mirror to the society he lived in, and Americans have looked into this glass and seen themselves as warm, decent, hard-working citizens of a country bountiful enough to accommodate their boundless optimism.” Norman Rockwell did, indeed, gift us with his amazing perspective, capturing scenes that are ordinary and yet timeless, easily recognized and yet marked distinctly with his own style of painting. I am very grateful for the opportunity to see such a rich body of work.