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Happy Birthday Norman Rockwell

Reviews Fort Lauderdale

Norman Rockwell

@ Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art, thru February 7th

Norman Rockwell, Illustrator or artist?  If you ask most people, they would say that Norman Rockwell was an illustrator, a statement he himself would not refute. But an artist? Most critics would snidely retort, certainly not.

This comprehensive retrospective of Norman Rockwell’s prolific career, is proof to me, that the illustrator is also an artist.

Norman Rockwell produced over 4,000 original works of art in his lifetime, many of which were commissioned for magazines, books and calenders. He also painted the portraits of famous figures in history including Presidents, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.

Academically trained, Rockwell remained a realist painter in the midst of the Modern movement. While the Abstract Expressionists were painting their raw emotions in the wake of wars, Rockwell portrayed a generation of Americans that sought to maintain humanity in the face of insanity, through idealized depictions of American life.

Rockwell’s fluency and technical abilities are demonstrated in sketch marks detected under thinner layers of paint that disappear into lushly rendered brush strokes. His striking ability to capture the essence of his characters and attention to the detritus of daily life, draws us into the moment.

Later in is his career Rockwell’s subjects turned from idealist, to activist, as he chose to tackle issues closer to his own interests, such as civil rights, poverty and the space program.  In “The problem we all live with” (1964), Rockwell adeptly addresses issues of racial tension as he captures the strength and dignity of a small African American girl, Ruby Bridges, being ushered to school, by four white federal marshals, along a turbulent path of racist graffiti and thrown tomatoes.

The serious artist is demonstrated in “Murder in Mississippi” (1965), where preparatory sketches and reference materials are displayed alongside several versions of the slaying of 3 civil rights activists.  Foregoing his obvious caricature and magazine layout, Rockwell draws on art history, Goya, in particular, as he struggles to portray this dark episode in American history.

We are all familiar with Rockwell’s works in print, but when one confronts the original paintings, it becomes indisputable that Americas most famous illustrator, is also one of Americas most gifted artist, who persistently presented us with the optimism of what life could be.

____Jami Nix Rahn