Wednesday, February 1, 2012
Happy Birthday, Norman
February 3rd marks the anniversary of the birth of my painting hero, Norman Rockwell. What kind of paintings would Norman be doing if he was still alive? Probably not very good ones, but then he'd be one hundred-eighteen years old. Jeez, cut the guy some slack!
I first fell in love with Rockwell's work before I had even picked up a brush, and I remember well how sad I was when I learned of his death on November 8, 1978. I used to pore over books about him and study his paintings, mesmerized at just how good that guy was at putting paint on canvas. Since then, I have studied hundreds of other artists. I've been blown away, intrigued, inspired and humbled at the great art I have seen. But yet- when I feel the need to ground myself and get back on the track to the painter I wish to be, I always return to Norman Rockwell.
In trying to come up with something to say about him and his work, I could have gone in a hundred different directions; biography, chronological history, a showcase of his art, his influence on others, his place in the "Golden Age" of illustrators-- you name it. But I decided to talk about just one of his paintings. It may not be his best, but it exemplifies all the reasons why Norman Rockwell was loved, and why I like him so much. This was published on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in 1929. By then, Rockwell had been painting covers for the Post for fifteen years, and was considered one of its best artists. He had another thirty more years of painting for them, and would turn out some real masterpieces such as Shuffleton's Barbershop, Saying Grace and Breaking Home Ties, to name just a few. But I think this was his first great one:
Ever see this one? I thought so. This one has all the elements though, doesn't it? Cute kid? Check. Nice old man? Check. Nostalgia? Humor? Check and check. Great painting? Oh yeah, big check. Let me break it all down.
We can imagine that this little girl goes to her kind old Doctor asking if he could make her dolly better. He's a nice guy and pretends to give it a check up. You can almost hear the dialogue, and you know he'll say she'll be just fine. Just a nice guy making a little girl happy. Every element and prop in this painting is there to aid in telling the story. The girl's outfit and page-boy hair cut puts this as a contemporary (for 1929) scene. The old Doc might have been doing a house call (they did that once upon a time...) but the diploma on the wall makes this his office. Now, when this first appeared, I'm sure there were a few viewers who knew of a Doctor or two who this reminded them of, but I'm betting that there were ten-fold more who might have wished their doctor was like that. That's were the nostalgia comes in. Rockwell has been disparaged for being too saccharine in his portrayals of American life. Well, he's not part of the "Ashcan School" that's true. Rockwell himself admitted that he painted life not as it was, but how he wished it was. That's what he's doing here.
What attracts me to this painting though, is... well, the painting. Every square inch of this is done as well as he could do it. Rockwell used the shape of a triangle in his design scheme. Along with seeing it in the overall design, He repeats it in the doctor's upper body, and the way the girl holds the doll. I also like how Rockwell ties in the black suit of the Doctor with the Rembrandt print over his shoulder, and the red Tam O'shanter on the girl with the red book leaning on the shelf. He also carries that red down to her shoes. Rockwell predominantly painted from the model at that point in time, with the exception of little kids. There is a photo of this little girl posing, but the doctor, as posed by a man named Pop Fredericks was almost certainly done from life. To me, Rockwell was a genius at painting textures; look at how he handled the texture of the little girl's leather jacket.
Damn! That's good. The rubbers on the girls shoes are a tour-de-force of painting by themselves.
Speaking of textures, what strikes me most about this painting is the chair Pops is sitting in.
I'm always blown away every time I study this passage. I love The authenticity of the chair. It was real. It sat there in front of him. Check out the worn legs and the paint peeling from the scratched seat. Note how he lit this chair in both cool blue light from an unseen window in the back, and warm light from the front. The paint handling is loose and flowing, but with just enough touch to make this chair sing. He didn't have to do all that work for an innocuous prop. That is really Rockwell's secret: he used every trick in the book to make his settings as realistic as possible so that the fantasy he presented in them seemed perfectly normal.
Sure, there were other illustrators who painted cute scenes, and some who did marvelously realistic illustrations. But Rockwell was the first to combine the two principles and give it a magic touch that keeps him revered to this day.
So Happy Birthday, Norman! I remember thinking all those years ago, and still do to this very day: When I grow up, I want to paint as good as Norman Rockwell.