BOOK REVIEW | Norman Rockwell

Elizabeth Miles Montgomery’s Norman Rockwell does a fine job of placing the over-sized, vividly colored plates found within this collection in their proper context. As she writes of Rockwell: “His critics have said that he chose to depict only the good side of the American experience. This is not altogether accurate, but in any case, it is beside the point. The real question is, how true were the things he did choose to paint?”

Quite true, as it turns out. Montgomery makes the case that Rockwell’s work rang true for generations of Americans, and that his obsessive attention to detail and authenticity, often involving expensive travels and acquisitions, marks him as a significant ethnographer and a dependable lens with which to view various aspects of the first half of the twentieth century. Also a value to historians are his depictions of American colonial life, as they show not only the early twentieth century view of that era, but Rockwell collected and analyzed antique artifacts and clothing to discover just how the fabrics looked, were constructed, and how they hung from the body.

Norman Rockwell, 1921.

Rockwell was first and foremost an illustrator, and thus the subjects of his work and their construction were often dependent upon the commissions he received. But what he did within those boundaries knew no boundaries of their own.

Rockwell fell out of favor in the 1960s and 1970s as young people saw his works as representing all that they wished to change from their parents’ generation, often not really understanding or studying the works which they criticized. As Montgomery concludes, “Rockwell saw the poetry and beauty in everyday life and made others see it too. He also saw the humor and the sadness… It is all too easy to discredit a popular figure of the past for being a man of his time. It is less easy to value him for the same reason… It is hardly a reproach to Rockwell that there will always be people who do not like to be reminded that their emotions are not much changed from those of their ancestors or that a painting does not lose its claim to greatness because it can move its viewers to tears or laughter.”

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If you would like to learn more about the artist, I recommend a visit to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA. Stockbridge is a beautiful New England town and the museum is just one of several historical treats in the area.

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