Norman Rockwell - artist or hack?

I honestly don’t understand some of the almost vicious criticism of this man. For me, he not only captures the aesthetic beauty of the reality he sees, but the underlying “moment” in front of him. In his portraits, he paints not just a face, but a struggle, or a victory, or a pain and sadness that is etched in every wrinkle. He captures raw human emotion and American culture. I think he is the Hemingway of artists. Why do you like or dislike his work?

It was a shock to me when my first high school teacher criticized Rockwell’s work, but I see his point now – Rockwell’s stuff is straightforward and easy to understand, with no hidden dark edges. To the aesthete, it’s cliche. On the other hand, I see nothing wrong in any of that.

As I noted in the recent Stephen King thread, William Hogarth’s engravings from the 18th century were also straightfiorwardx “tell a story” pictures that could be interpreted to tell what was going on, and were immediately interpretable by the general public. Hogarth even tried to keep his stuff inexpensive (and therefore accessible to the general public). Hogarth had no qualms about calling himself a Great Artist, worthhy of competing with the Ancients. Yet some of his stuff contains maudlin stuff, awful puns, and downright crudity. Todat Hogarth is considered a Great Artist.

The only thing Rockwell lacks that Hogarth had, as far as I can see, is that rough edge. Hogarth showed deceit, cheating, marital infidelity, and other nasty stuff. If critics in the future can overcoime their distrust of sweetness and light, we may see a re-appraisal of Rockwell.

I have just recently been to the Norman Rockwell Museum (in Stockbridge, Massachusettes) and seen some of his paintings with commentary on some of them. It is my impression that one of the main objections critics had of him is Sentimentality. His work tugs on the heartstrings. This is not something that I, as a viewer, object to, but it is something that causes critics to sneer. Also, his work was a commercial and popular success (as in, he sold a lot of paintings and they appeared in print for the masses to view. I don’t know how much money he earned by selling paintings.) Critics often seem to think that work which is successful commercially and is popular is less “worthy” from a critical viewpoint than work which is not. (I’m still not sure whether that sentance says what I want it to. what I’m getting at is the tendency of critics, and other people, to assume that works by Steven King or J.K. Rowling have value only for their popularity and have little literary merit. On the other hand, another author’s works may be praised for their literary merit, but go unread by the general masses of people.)

I like Norman Rockwell’s paintings, I love the world he portrayed in his work. I don’t know how you can call anyone with his talent, his eye for detail, and his ability to put on canvas a slice of Americana, a hack. On the other hand, sweetness, sentiment and popularity are not traits that endear one to the art critic world, of which I am not a member.

Well, Rockwell has a few “edgy” paintings. The one of the National Guard escorting a little black girl to school (I forget the title) comes to mind.

I don’t like his paintings all that much, mostly due to their sentimentality, but he was great technically. So no, I don’t think he was a hack. Thomas Kinkade, on the other hand…

He was prolific, but he was not terrifically talented—he was certainly no Neysa McMein or J.C. Leyendecker. I’ve been to his museum and was surprised at how flat his work is, how bad his sense of perspective, and how (like so many artists!) he wasn’t terrific at doing hands.

My main objection is his faces: nearly all of his models’ faces are over-posed in violent “vaudeville” emotions. No one looks natural or “slice of life,” they all look, “OK, now—look HAPPY! Now look SAD!” Kind of like Jim Carrey’s acting.

So, in my opinion, he was not a hack or a great artist; he was a competent and very prolific (and therefore widely distributed) magazine illustrator who said what people wanted to hear at the time.

My understanding is that Rockwell himself never claimed to be an arist – he called himself an “illustrator”.

I have to disagree with Eve about perspective, and even hands – one of Rockwell’s trademarks is his almost photographic realism. In fact, I think that’s one thing the critics hold against him – photorealism is too easily accessible, and critics don’t like it unless you’re doing something subversive with it.

After Rockwell died, BTW, his contracts were fulfilled by a guy named Csatari, who lived in my home town (same name as my high school gym teacher – I think they were related). Like Rockwell, Casatari had the locals model for him. So we have a Rockwellesque Csatari Boy Scout painting with the heads of people we know.

So far as American artists go, he’s not nearly as bad as Thomas Kinkade (who doesn’t even deserve to be called an artist), but he’s no Edward Hopper either. I think Rockwell’s failing, in my eyes, is his lack of subtlety. I tend to prefer artists who leave some ambiguity or mystery in their paintings. With Rockwell, there’s little to “think” about–the message is pretty straightforward.

Plus, his character portrayals are virtually caricatures–I agree with Eve’s assessment.

I think some of the critics’ vitriol is due to how traditional his technique was–at a time when artists like Stuart Davis were playing with Cubism, and when Jackson Pollock was beginning to experiment with Action (Abstract Expressionist) paintings, Rockwell still practiced a fairly conventional style of representation.

As art historians look back at the twentieth century, a lot of artists who had been excluded from the modernist narrative are being re-evaluated. You’ll probably see the criticism toward Rockwell soften quite a bit if it hasn’t already–more and more critics are interested in illustration, and they often question the traditional hierarchy of visual art (with the divide between “fine” arts–e.g., paintings–and illustration).

But I still don’t care for his work very much.

I came to the conclusion some years back that most critics make their living by telling you that what you think is good is bad, and what you think is bad is good. Plus, of course, there is an enormous “anti-popular” reaction among those who consider themselves to be connisseurs.

But then things change over time. So I think that the evolution of criticism of a crowd-pleasing, highly competent, and accessible piece of art (regardless of its form) tends to be initial panning by the critics. Once this has taken deep root, and everyone “knows” that the piece is no good, the critics can then begin to tell you how good it is. Of course the stuff these same critics say is good tends never to become popular, so it can remain “good.”

So I would expect to see Rockwell’s reputation grow over time, since it is now fairly firmly established that he was bad.

Expect Kinkade to get accolades in about 20-50 years. :smiley:

Rockwell’s straightforwardness works against him. Critics like to show off and “discover” meaning in work; with Rockwell, it’s all very transparent. That requires as much artistic ability as any other style, but it’s assumed it’s somehow “easier” and “less artistic.”

I personally find Rockwell to be an extremely competent and successful commercial artist. He was very good at painting artwork that sells – work that can be used for magazine covers, advertisements, and other commercial applications. I wouldn’t call him a hack by any stretch of the imagination.

But I wouldn’t call him an Artist with a capital “A” either. It’s not because his work has widespread popularity. Just because a mass audience likes it doesn’t mean its bad. His work is, frankly, ephemeral. They all whack you over the head with an obvious emotion (Eve is right on about the Vaudeville-esqueness of his work), and as soon as you walk away, it’s gone. There’s nothing to think about or contemplate or take away from the painting after staring at it for a minute.

Also, his work didn’t contain any new ideas, artistically. His illustrations might make a nice magazine cover, but they don’t contribute anything new to the art world. It’s shallow, boring, sentimental crap, to be blunt. But, commercially, it works, and I do respect Rockwell for his ability to conistently produce marketable work. That’s no small feat.

However, I don’t expect any critical reappraisal of Rockwell anytime in my lifetime.


Great Art makes the viewer ask questions, while bad art tries to answer them. In that sense, Rockwell was not a Great Artist.

He was, however, a kick-ass illustrator and deserves respect for that.

Why is it necessary for Rockwell to have introduced anything new to art? He set out to depict slices of American life, and he did very well at that. If he made his message clearer or more accessible than other artists, that’s to his credit, not his detriment.

Now, Kinkaide is another story altogether. The so-called “Painter of Light” can’t even figure out that the shadows and the light source are supposed to be on different sides. Maybe, for all I know, he has a message, but if so, his lack of technical ability completely obscures it.

Heh, when these artist debates come up, I always think of Top Secret…

–“They’re still working on him. They’ve tried everything. He won’t break. Do you want me to bring out the Leroy Neiman paintings?”
–“No, we cannot risk violating the Geneva convention.”

You’re right, but his startlingly-renered view of the American landscape was prosaic and puritanical. The closest he came to depicting sexuality was the browbeaten soda jerk sniffing some prom girl’s corsage.

You could say that he was the product of a more innocent age, but most of his contemporary peers (Leyendecker, Parrish, Held) had a clear understanding of sex and its importance. It’s just something that’s curiously lacking in his body of work. Wonder how he’s percieved in Eurpoe?

One must appreciate that artists — every one — create what they want to create. From the provocateur creator of the Piss-Christ seeking to shock all who sees his abomination to the painter of meadow scenes whose work will be placed in the family room, perhaps above a couch. Taste is subjective, so terms like “good” and “bad” become useless. And I wouldn’t call Rockwell a “hack” just because his work is one-dimensionally sentimental.

I will say that too often after Gallery Night, after seeing gallery after gallery of esoteric, self-indulgent work meant to “provoke” and “challenge,” I find Rockwell to a welcome counterbalance. I mean honestly: how often is it that you find an artist with something nice to say?

Norman Rockwell was an Illustrator, as others here have already pointed out. There’s a difference between Illustrator and Fine Artist.

I studied Illustration in art school. Let me tell you, what they taught us was different than what they taught the Fine Art students. (There was a joke made by one of the students—or perhaps it was a teacher?—when someone found a sketchbook in the student lounge. All the drawings in it were awkward and abysmal. “Must be by a Fine Art student,” the person said. ;))

NO, of course it’s not true that all Fine Art students don’t draw well, but the joke didn’t happen in a vacuum either. Fine Art and Illustration were about different things. In Illustration we were taught how to make a pleasing, realistic image that will sell a product or sell a story. In Fine Art, that wasn’t the highest priority, so some (or many) of the Fine Art students didn’t have very strong drawing skills. In fact, I was sneered at in a Fine Art painting class I took, because I did draw well. "That is very . . . competent." <sneer sneer>

Okay, so I’ve given you a little background there. So Rockwell wasn’t a Fine Artist, he was an illustrator and he sold works to magazine covers. It was all about the Saturday Evening Post, and what they wanted, and what they thought their readers wanted. And damn—he was good at it. He understood color, he drew amazingly well (even though later he’d just take photos and project them onto the canvas and then trace over them, he’d cut his teeth drawing and could draw amazing scenes from memory since his understanding of anatomy was so excellent). He was a really, really good illustrator and artist and he sold a lot of magazine covers and pleased a lot of people.

And he also had a real heart—some of those civil rights paintings are fantastic. There’s one in particular called Murder in Mississippi that always gets to me. Damn, that’s powerful. I read his autobiography years ago and he definitely had a fire in him about civil rights causes. And who better to get such important messages across than Norman Rockwell, beloved and “wholesome” Americana popular artist? Those paintings no doubt helped soften hearts that were more resistant to other forms of persuasion. I have immense respect for him as an artist and illustrator.

Rockwell’s scenes are not slices of the America I live in. I never see people wearing over-exaggerated expressions like Stan Laurel in my day-to-day doings. Rockwell not only used over the top expressions, but he exaggerated them by strategically reddening parts of the faces of his subjects. It often looks like his figures are wearing rouge, drunk, or sunburned.

Rockwell was a good draughtsman. He was not a great colorist, however, and his compositions were often dull. Frequently his pictures are a central jumbles on flat white backgrounds. This is, of course, because The Saturday Evening Post used that as a kind of iconography. It need not have been that way. Almost any copy of The New Yorker proves that illustrators can employ good design.

Ultimately, Rockwell’s clichéd genre scenes just aren’t interesting enough to hold my attention long.

Yeah, what he said.

I actually thought Rockwell was a good artist and illustrator until I saw his works in person at his museum, and realized how . . . well, pedestrian and not terribly technically accomplished he was.

He was fast and prolific, though, which is why he got so much work: he gave the mags exactly what they asked for, and he got it to them by deadline.

Here’s the part I don’t get so far. The artsy-fartsies (Fine Art critics) criticize art that is well drawn and therefore criticize Rockwell, and yet his art is really not well drawn (not terribly technically accomplished) and so it qualifies as fine art? Is he, as an artist, damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t?