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The restoratioin of Norman Rockwell Art snobs who once dismissed the artist's sentimental scenes of Americana are now seeing his works with new eyes.


STOCKBRIDGE, Mass. - Ye denizens of uber-cool galleries and art happenings, admit it - you like Norman Rockwell.It's OK. Rockwell is no longer a guilty pleasure of the art world.

Yes, critics used to insist that we, if not exactly scorn him, at least dismiss his genial, sentimental art. "Normal Norman," as art critic Robert Hughes snidely dubbed him, was devalued even by the artist himself, who deflected charges against him by saying he was an illustrator, not an artist.

Nevertheless, through eight decades he has burrowed deep into the American psyche. The time has come when his pictures, the best of which possess an authenticity and insight comparable to the Old Masters, are being accepted in and out of the art world as fine art.

What could end up being a seismic shift in the artist's reputation occurred earlier this year, when Robert Rosenblum, contributing editor for ArtForum, wrote that Rockwell "keeps pricking my art-historical conscience."

Rosenblum's epiphany came, as it often does for one-time art snobs, viewing Rockwell's original paintings at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. "I became an instant convert," the critic wrote.

Rosenblum's essay gave voice to a legion of new Rockwell believers. "I, for one, am happy now to love Rockwell for his own sake," he declared unabashedly. "We have a newborn Rockwell who can no longer be looked at with sneering condescension and might well become an indispensable part of art history."

Rosenblum's reassessment continues a movement toward the lanky Yankee that has grown quietly throughout this decade. Laurie Norton Moffatt, the director of the Norman Rockwell Museum, has seen a change in attitude toward Rockwell.

"There's a tidal wave of energy moving on its own," says Moffatt, whose museum is at the epicenter of the artist's ascendancy.

Rockwell's rebirth as a master began in earnest in 1993, when the museum moved to its present home on a 36-acre Stockbridge estate. Before that, the museum had been located in a quaint but cramped historic house on Main Street in the famously picturesque Berkshire village where Rockwell spent his last 25 years.

When he died in 1978 at age 84, Rockwell left his personal art collection of 502 paintings and drawings, including 172 finished oil paintings and the contents of his studio, to the museum in the Old Corner House.

That venue, which Moffatt began working in as a 20-year-old docent in 1977, was little more than another tourist attraction in a busy tourist town at the time of Rockwell's death. Fifteen years later, when the collection was relocated to an elegant new building designed by noted architect Robert Stern, the museum attracted attention from around the world.

Now, Rockwell's reputation is about to rise again. His paintings, which existed in a parallel universe from the museum and critical community during his lifetime, will embark on a two-year, six-museum tour that will include stops at the Chicago Historical Society, the San Diego Museum of Art, the Phoenix Art Museum and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. Co-organized by the Rockwell Museum and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the exhibit will open in Atlanta in November 1999, and end in Stockbridge in October 2001.

Moffatt says the aim of the show, which will contain more than 70 oil paintings and all 322 of Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post illustrations, is to "invite reappraisal and raise awareness" of an artist she calls "a national treasure."

"We don't pitch him as only an illustrator," Moffatt says. "Someone as prodigious, prolific and passionate [as Rockwell], there's a genius quality to that."

Moffatt also wants the tour to introduce the artist's legacy to young people unfamiliar with his art.

No doubt many of these new viewers will be struck by the feeling of discovery that is the hallmark of Rockwell's painting. He was a magical storyteller, on par not just with the great illustrators of his day, the Howard Pyles and N.C. Wyeths, but up there with Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson and his personal favorite, Charles Dickens.

"Dickens wrote about the kind of people I paint," he once said.

When he was a boy, Rockwell would illustrate the Victorian author's tales while his father read them aloud to the family.

Rockwell, like Dickens, infused his art with pathos and humor -the sweet smile that spreads across your face while looking at his best paintings is backed by feelings of sympathy and compassion, both for the individuals within the frame and for the human condition generally. Like all great storytellers, Rockwell makes his audience a party to the drama unfolding before its eyes.

Critic Dave Hickey sees a "deeply anti-authoritarian" strain in Rockwell.

Rockwell's art "almost never portrays the benefits of power," says Hickey, a professor of art criticism and theory at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"Rockwell's whole idea of history is very American; it's based on the promise of youth," he says. "It's easy to project the kids from the '50s [in his paintings] into the '60s."

Hickey said that much of American culture is rooted in Rockwell's democratic sensibility, from the films of Frank Capra to the novels of Jack Kerouac.

"What is Kerouac but Norman Rockwell on the road? Beatific encounters of everyday people on the road," he said.

Rockwell learned his craft by copying Renaissance masterworks, studying plaster casts and, of course, drawing from life. Although he never claimed it outright, there can be little doubt he saw himself as a living member of a glorious tradition, and in his work made regular references to the great art of the past.

The stance of a football hero in "The Recruit" is based on a Michelangelo sculpture, while his own "Triple Self-Portrait" in which we see Rockwell looking into a mirror at Rockwell while painting the face of Rockwell, includes tips of the hat to Durer, Rembrandt, Picasso and Van Gogh.

Rockwell, however, also worked from photographs; a concession deadlines he was at first loathe to accept. His archives are filled with photographic studies of his models in full costume, often in the same general setting as the finished painting.

Yet he was much more than a copyist, a fact that is reasserted over and over as one studies his paintings. Rockwell's gift - maybe his greatest gift - was in details. In his famous "Freedom from Want," which shows a family gathered around the Thanksgiving table, he depicts the subtle, beautiful play of light upon sheer curtains, bone china, water glasses. "The Gossips," a witty narrative of a rumor spreading from ear to ear among 15 different people, is a study in hairdos, noses and facial wrinkles. And "The Problem We All Live With," which shows a black girl being escorted to school by U.S. Marshals, depicts an iconography of hate that includes a hurled smashed tomato and scrawled epithets.

"If you don't look at his paintings closely, you don't see the things that he sees. It's taken for granted," Moffatt says. "But if you take the time to look carefully, you're astonished by the level of detail. It's staggering what he took the time to paint."

Pub date: 12/13/98

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