Probably the most controversial thing I've written in the past year dealt with an American artist who, during his own lifetime at least, was quite likely the least controversial artist alive. And to once more see him batted and battered around is not why I mention him again. In the past, he seems to have been blackballed as the liberal equivalent of a Communist judging by the way America's "upper-crust" art community has always seemed to laugh, or at least smirk, at the mere mention of his name. Yet, judging from various news accounts recently, it seems the coming millennium is sparking a revaluation of his life's work by some of the very people who have, at one time or another, snubbed or even jeered the paintings of this man who is easily the most popular American artist of the 20th century. Graduate students are starting to write doctoral dissertations on him, while a major touring exhibit of 70 of his original oils is about to visit six major museums across the country. One former critic has even dubbed this the "Norman Rockwell Century."
Harry Philbrick, curator of the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Connecticut, thinks much of the problem is those critics and museum directors who have never seen a Rockwell original, only poor to mediocre reproductions. He confesses, "...I didn't realise they were so big or that he was such an excellent painter...he is not just an illustrator. He is a first-rate artist." Cathy Osman, professor of fine arts at Marlboro College, Vermont, points out that the art community tends to favour "...the grittier, dark side of American life," of Hopper and John Sloan. Internationally, Paul Johnson, a British historian goes even further, "People do not like Picasso, they just feel they ought to, but they genuinely love Rockwell." And in Japan, where some of his paintings have just returned from a six-month tour, they compare his work to the best of the scroll painters.
Strangely though, Rockwell greatly admired Picasso and went to Paris in the 1920s to study Cubism. He left disillusioned, when his teachers, who made less in a year than he made on a single Post cover, kept asking him how to become a successful magazine illustrator. In 1969 he had his first major, one-man show at an important New York gallery. No one of any importance in the art world came, but over one million dollars worth of his art was sold on the opening day. A ten-pound book on his work outsold Eric Segal's Love Story the next year. Collectors of his work have included Andy Warhol, Ross Perot, and Steven Spielberg, who not only owns 14 of them, but admits to being influenced by Rockwell in the making of his own popular classic, E.T. The last time a Rockwell came up for auction it netted $914,000, which is more than what many Picassos have brought. Yet, even after 4,000 paintings and drawings, the rejection continues. But he's in good company. El Greco considered Michelangelo a "good man who simply could not paint," while Manet put down CÚzanne as a bricklayer who painted with a trowel. CÚzanne, on the other hand, looked at van Gogh and saw nothing but insanity. Norman, your time will come.