Reassessing Rockwell: Springfield Museums showcase drawings by artist who idealized America

Last modified: Thursday, August 21, 2014
Viewed from our cynical, media-saturated times, the 1950s and early 1960s in the United States — before the advent of the Vietnam War and the social clashes of the later ’60s — often seems a halcyon era. We had become an unqualified world power in the wake of World War II, the economy was strong, and a prosperous, optimistic middle class had emerged for the first time in the nation’s history.

Perhaps no artist has become more identified with that time than Norman Rockwell, whose paintings and drawings — particularly his many covers for The Saturday Evening Post — celebrated small-town America, ordinary people, and traditional values such as family dinners and church services.

A new exhibit at the Springfield Museums takes a fresh look at Rockwell, unveiling drawings he did for the Mass Mutual Company, one of Springfield’s major employers. “Norman Rockwell’s World: Reinterpreting the American Tradition in the 21st Century” showcases 21 of those drawings, which Rockwell did for Mass Mutual advertisements and publications in the ’50s and early ’60s; the museums have 40 such Rockwell drawings in their permanent collection.

Most of the drawings, on display in the Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History, celebrate the themes Rockwell made his calling card, like family activities and children at play. The images, done either in conté crayon or pencil, include a children’s birthday party, backyard barbecues and a picnic, a mother reading to her children, and a little boy and his father gazing at a dinosaur skeleton in a museum.

Guy McClain, the History Museum’s director, says none of those drawings has been exhibited since the 1990s. Given that, and the fact that it’s been a over half a century since Rockwell, born in 1894, made many of them, it seems a good time to revisit the work, he adds.

“I think there’s something of a reassessment of Rockwell that’s taking place,” said McClain, pointing to a recent biography of Rockwell, by The New York Times art critic Deborah Solomon, that details a renewed interest and appreciation of Rockwell’s work. His art has also become highly valued in the marketplace: His 1957 painting “The Rookie,” which depicts several players in the Boston Red Sox clubhouse, just sold for $22.5 million.

By contrast, many critics in the later years of Rockwell’s career, and as recently as 15-20 years ago, dismissed him as an “illustrator,” while also saying he depicted a sentimental, idealized America by ignoring urban life and minorities, among other shortcomings.

“Those are valid criticisms,” McClain said. “You can also make the case that as an artist, Rockwell wasn’t very open to some of the stylistic shifts that occurred during the 20th century, like abstraction. ... But in fact he was a very skilled painter, and to say he was ‘only’ an illustrator, I think that’s a very limited perspective.

“But that’s why we have exhibits like this,” he added. “We like to put the work out there so that people can view it and raise those questions themselves.”

Rockwell, the exhibition notes point out, gained much of his popularity during a time when many leading American artists were drawn to abstraction and other modern idioms. But for people who preferred more traditional, representational work, Rockwell “quickly became the standard-bearer for this more accessible art.”

We the people

In the Springfield exhibit, many familiar Rockwellian figures can be seen: freckle-faced boys and girls, square-jawed, suburban men, sensibly dressed women — all of them white. Some drawings reveal a scene that used to be standard but has become less common in the early 21st century: families eating dinner together. The general theme might be described as a celebration of the “we-the-people” ideals of American democracy.

Rockwell also often focused on the gentle humor of everyday life, like his famous 1958 painting “The Runaway,” in which a beefy cop sits next to a small boy at a lunch counter; at the boy’s feet sits his meager belongings, tied to a stick with a piece of cloth.

In the Springfield show, perhaps the best example of that is “Spaceship,” a 1960 drawing in which four boys construct a “rocket” made up of a barrel, an inverted trash can, a standing lamp and wooden fins. The boys hold hammers and other hand tools, and one boy wears a clunky, imitation astronaut helmet.

In “Midnight Oil,” a father and mother peer fondly through their teenage son’s bedroom door, watching him as he sits at a table with a typewriter, working on a school assignment. There’s a half-eaten piece of pie and a glass of milk on the table; a dog crouches at the boy’s feet. In this pre-rock-’n’-roll era, there are no posters on the wall of bands, nor any pictures of baseball players, cars or the like — just two portraits of Abraham Lincoln.

In “Mother’s Birthday,” meanwhile, a father, son and daughter march jauntily down a hallway in their home, the father holding a breakfast tray aloft, the girl carrying a wrapped gift. In “Birthday,” three girls cluster excitedly around a birthday cake as a fourth puffs up her cheeks to blow out the candles.

“I tried to find a good cross-section of [Rockwell’s] work for the show,” McClain said. He notes that Mass Mutual, as an insurance company, would have wanted these family-type images to sell its products “and Rockwell was very good at presenting those kinds of images. I think many people are still drawn to them.”

The show also includes an original Rockwell-inspired mural by University of Massachusetts Amherst art professor John Simpson, a pastiche of a self-portrait Rockwell made of himself at his easel.

McClain says the exhibit, which is designed to complement a show of American paintings from 1910-1960 that opens June 6 at the D’Amour Museum of Modern Art, showcases art that many people likely have never seen. “I talked with some Rockwell scholars as I was preparing the show, and a couple of them didn’t know he’d ever done work for Mass Mutual,” he said.

As to whether Rockwell glossed over some of the less memorable aspects of U.S. life in this era — the anti-communist zealotry, the violence blacks faced as part of the civil rights movement — McClain says it’s up to visitors to judge, though he points out there’s no law that says art must reflect the time in which it’s made.

“Hopefully this show will give people some different things to think about,” he said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Norman Rockwell’s World: Reinterpreting the American Tradition in the 21st Century” runs through Jan. 4, 2015, at the Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History. For visiting hours, ticket prices and other information, visit www.springfieldmuseums.org or call 263-6800.