"The view of life I communicated in my pictures excludes the sordid and ugly," the painter Norman Rockwell once said. "I paint life as I would like it to be."

Over his 65-year career, Rockwell painted America better than it ever was and possibly better than it can ever be. In his paintings there is no poverty, racism or war; no greed, meanness or intolerance. And on those rare occasions when the darker side of life intrudes into his idyllic America, it's always transmuted into a more hopeful key, as if life's cruelties were somehow temporary intruders in a world that's basically good.

Yet it's not really fair to criticize Rockwell because his paintings don't tell the whole truth. His pictures are a reflection of an era in American history when people craved escape from a harsh reality. They welcomed Rockwell's cheerful visions like thirsty desert travelers sighting a cool oasis in the distance. Whatever his art has to say about America, the paintings and sketches that made him one of America's most beloved painters at least tell the truth about the kind of man and artist Rockwell was.

This, at least, is the curatorial rationale that underlies "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People," which opened Saturday at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art. It signals what may be a long-overdue reappraisal of this most popular of American artists.

Billed as the first comprehensive exhibit of the artist's work since his death in 1978, the show features more than 70 of Rockwell's oil paintings and all 322 of his Saturday Evening Post covers, as well as sketches, photographs and detailed drawings the artist made in preparing his iconic images.

It's the kind of the show that's sure to delight the public, though the verdict is still out among critics and art historians, who long ago relegated Rockwell to the inferior category of illustrator rather than artist. Thus has it ever been with the man known to millions as America's favorite painter.

The critics have never liked Rockwell, and one suspects it's partly because he didn't need them as intermediaries to explain his art to the public. Rockwell's art told its own story in the most direct way possible.

Of course, every Rockwell painting was a story, an anecdotal slice of life that incorporated its own beginning, middle and end in purely visual terms.

Take, for example, "Freedom from Want" (1943), Rockwell's famous picture of a family Thanksgiving Day dinner. It was painted to illustrate one of the four freedoms President Franklin D. Roosevelt outlined in his 1941 State of the Union address to explain to the American people the country's stake in the impending global conflict. (The other three were freedom from fear, freedom of speech and freedom of worship, all of which Rockwell illustrated.)

"Freedom from Want" depicts three generations gathered around a long dinner table, with the viewer symbolically placed in the guest of honor's chair at one end of the table. A smiling face in one corner of the picture turns to welcome us as strangers into this intimate setting. At the other end of the table, directly facing the viewer, is the benign pater familias and his wife, who is reverently placing a huge holiday turkey on the white linen tablecloth.

The picture was first published by the Saturday Evening Post in 1943, when the country was in the midst of a life and death struggle against foreign enemies. Yet Rockwell's picture, like most of his paintings from the war years, depicts the home front and not the battlefield.

The mountainous Thanksgiving turkey and the abundance it represents both celebrates the productivity of Americans, and recalls the previous decade of the Depression and its privations. Symbolically, the picture suggests that just as America triumphed over the Depression, it will emerge victorious in a war fought to preserve the basic values of family, decency and tolerance represented by this familiar domestic scene.

Rockwell's pictures were painted in a style of minute verisimilitude that exaggerated every wink, scowl, grin and pout on his characters' faces. But the people in his pictures were never mere caricatures. He often used his family, friends and neighbors as models, and he depicted them with loving affection. "If you are interested in the characters you draw, and understand them and love them, why, the people who see your picture are bound to feel the same way," he once said.

Rockwell's pictures chronicled the ordinary and extraordinary moments in American life and history, offering Americans a way to understand themselves, their country and their experiences.

"The commonplaces of America are to me the richest subjects in art," Rockwell wrote in 1936. "Boys batting flies on vacant lots; little girls playing jacks on the front steps; old men plodding home at twilight, umbrellas in hand - all these things arouse feeling in me."

In "Girl at Mirror" (1954), for example, Rockwell's tender portrait of a young girl on the edge of womanhood elevates a commonplace scene of adolescent yearning to a universal image of life's inevitable transitions. The girl holds in her lap a publicity shot of a movie star, emblematic of her passage into adulthood. Yet her childhood doll remains close at hand, and the artist clearly empathizes with both her longing and anxiety in the face of the unknown.

Similarly, in "After the Prom" (1957) Rockwell's scene of a teen-age couple sitting at the counter of small town soda shop offered a reassuring view of adolescent courtship to an era that was increasingly troubled by changing sexual mores among the young.

"Commonplaces never become tiresome," Rockwell once said. "It is we who become tired when we cease to be curious and appreciative ... it is not a new scene which is needed, but a new viewpoint."

But for most critics, the new viewpoint in American art of the 20th century was modern and abstract, and not realistic and anecdotal. In their view, Rockwell was hopelessly old-fashioned.

The unbridgeable divide between art and illustration, which the art world took as a given and which marked an impassable boundary between high and low art, haunted Rockwell throughout his career. Illustration, so the conventional wisdom goes, only tells us what we already know, whereas true art enlarges our experience of the world.

Rockwell did enlarge our experience, though he never got much credit for it. By painting America better than it was, he probably helped make it a better place by giving people an ideal to live up to. Still, he was typecast early as a commercial artist and illustrator. In most standard textbooks on American art he doesn't even merit mention.

The critic Robert Hughes summed up the prevailing attitude in his obituary of Rockwell for Time magazine: "He never made an impression on the history of art and never will. But on the history of illustration and mass communication his mark was deep and will remain indelible."

With this show, that assessment may finally be changing. As the art historian and critic Thomas Hoving writes in the catalog for this show, "Rockwell's images are more universal than most people give them credit for."

Rockwell was a consummate storyteller who understood and appreciated the narrative tradition in European painting. He was a painstaking craftsman who built up his compositions detail by detail until his message was embodied in the very structure of his paintings. He used light, shadow and color to create moods that his public responded to instinctively.

In the new millennium, Rockwell's virtues are getting a second look from an art world long accustomed to ignoring his genius for personal communication with a vast and varied country.

As Hoving writes, "In American art there has rarely been a creator of such influence as Norman Rockwell. These days, now that the obsession or abstraction has cooled, his achievements are being discovered by scholars. Rockwell is more and more identified - correctly - as a cultural phenomenon, one who made a sea change in the perception of art in this nation."

Rockwell revisited

What: "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People"

Where: The Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St., N.W., Washington

When: Wednesday through Monday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Tuesday. Open until 9 p.m. Wednesday through Friday July 1-Sept. 1. Through Sept. 24

Tickets: $10 adults, $8 seniors and students, $4 children under 12 weekdays; $12 adults, $10 seniors and students, $4 children under 12 weekends

Call: 202-639-1700

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