Norman Rockwell Revisited: As American as Apple Pie and the 4th of July

“Norman Rockwell’s America” is on exhibit at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley through August 8. This museum is a treasure of fine art, the history of the Shenandoah Valley, and emerging contemporary artists.

Michael T. Davis’s exemplary Modern Day Presidential, 2017-2018 in the MSV’s permanent collection is also reminiscent of Rembrandt. Imagine if Rockwell and Rembrandt were alive today to chronicle the turbulent times of the 21st century. (Photo: Kelly MacConomy)

Alexandria, VA – Summertime is here and the living is…easier. Now that vaccinations are available, metrics look good or at least better, and masks/gathering restrictions are being lifted, the call for day tripping sounds loud and clear. If you venture out to the Shenandoah Valley, perhaps to explore Shenandoah Caverns or follow the Shenandoah Valley Wine and Spirits Trails, a stop at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley is a must.

“Norman Rockwell’s America” opened at the MSV on February 20 and will be on exhibit until August 8. What’s more iconically American than the legacy of beloved artist Norman Rockwell? His depictions of everyday life—from California to the New York Islands, from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters—remain the brand of the enduring American zeitgeist. Rockwell’s illustrations for Saturday Evening Post covers are as recognizable as the Stars and Stripes itself.

Rockwell began his career early in the 20th century, creating illustration artwork at Boy’s Life magazine. Then at age 22, he began the readily recognizable covers for the Saturday Evening Post. Rockwell stayed with the Post from 1916 until 1963, creating lighthearted, humorous canvases to delight households glued to the pages in search of diversions from a world at war, an age in fear of nuclear holocaust, communist domination, and never-ending threats to truth, justice, and the American way. He then went to Look magazine to illustrate current affairs.

Rockwell created 322 covers for the Saturday Evening Post over 47 years, about seven a year. “Norman Rockwell’s America” has every one of them on exhibit. Most walls display at least one original artwork, some for a SEP cover, others as unrelated projects such as the movie poster for The Magnificent Ambersons. More than 30 canvases, drawings, posters, and video of the For Freedom project are among the complete collection of SEP magazine covers.

During the Zebra’s visit, the diversity of people drawn to this exhibit crossed four generations of Americans. Grandparents toured the exhibition with grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Young couples new to Rockwell’s work were intrigued, while partners in their golden years entered the gallery excitedly wondering, “Is my Rockwell here?”

Norman Rockwell’s iconic illustrations of everyday life appeal to a multi-generational audience across the spectrum of America today. (Photo: Kelly MacConomy)
This woman’s aunt was the hand model for the Freedom of Worship war bond poster. (Photo: Scott MacConomy)
Don’t miss the other marvelous exhibit at the MSV called “Rock Paper Scissors,” works by New Image artists on exhibit through October 31, 2021. Shown: Paperless, 2020. Quilted cotton by Catherine Kleeman. (Photo: Scott MacConomy)

One woman in her eighties pulled her ninety-year-old husband over to the Freedom of Worship original vintage poster, pointing to the elderly woman’s hand in prayer. “My aunt was the model for these hands! That’s not her face, but those were her hands!”

The 1943 Four Freedoms (freedom of worship and speech, freedom from fear and want) poster series took Rockwell seven months to complete. It was so all-consuming that he lost 15 pounds in the process. That year a fire destroyed many of the original costumes and props his models had used, as well as original paintings. From then on, because those items were irreplaceable, Rockwell’s work diverged. He began illustrating modern characters in his paintings and drawings in place of the more whimsically historical and theatrical nuanced images of his earlier work.

This is the first exhibit of Norman Rockwell’s art in the DMV since the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s retrospective in 2010. “Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg,” two of the greatest storytellers of a generation, was a blockbuster show for the renovated SAAM. Queuing snaked all around the Kogod Courtyard, which divides the National Portrait Gallery and the SAAM.

The MSV’s exhibit features less well-known paintings by Rockwell in addition to the many classic, most memorable canvases for the Saturday Evening Post. Happy Birthday Miss Jones illustrates the heartwarming occasion when a beloved grammar school teacher on her birthday smiles down upon a rapt classroom of children who had each written “Happy Birthday Miss Jones” on the chalkboard. Triple Self Portrait showed details of Rockwell’s floor-to-ceiling masterpieces of other artists in his art-filled studio that were redacted in the final illustration for the SEP cover.

Young Valedictorian, 1922, oil on canvas. Even this finished painting, one of Rockwell’s few unpublished works, teases with his sense of ironic humor while demonstrating mastery of illumination and color. (Photo: Kelly MacConomy)

Rockwell was without question a gifted, accomplished draftsman and skilled master of illumination in the tradition of Dutch Masters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer. His painting for General Electric, Young Valedictorian (oil on canvas, 1922), demonstrates that it takes remarkable artistic ability, if not genius, to create a visual narrative that symbolizes the soul of a diverse nation. Not just a pretty painting but a work of art that makes you smile as well as think.

One has to wonder, could Jackson Pollock illustrate with such gravitas and subtle humor so an iconic image as the family gathered around a bountiful Thanksgiving table? Pablo Picasso once noted that at the age of 17, he could draw and paint like Raphael, but it took him an entire lifetime to learn how to paint like a child.

An homage to Rockwell’s 1943 Freedom of Worship poster from the 2018 For Freedoms photography project by Hank Willis and Thomas and Emily Shur in collaboration with Eric Gottesman and the Wyatt Gallery of For Freedoms. (Photo: Kelly MacConomy)
Vintage 1943 Rockwell war bonds poster Freedom of Worship by the U.S.Government Printing Office. (Photo: Kelly MacConomy)

Rockwell admired Picasso and had a Saltimbanque print hanging above the easel in his Stockbridge studio, among other classical and modern art masterworks. But we can surmise what he thought of Pollock and the future of contemporary American art based on his homage painting and, at the height of the New York Abstract Expressionist movement, the January 13, 1962, Saturday Evening Post cover, The Connoisseur.

From the painting’s composition—a middle-aged man looking at a Pollock-esque work—we know Rockwell could paint like Pollock. But could Pollock paint the Four Freedoms? Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so.

“Norman Rockwell’s America” is on exhibit at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley through August 8. This museum is a treasure of fine art, the history of the Shenandoah Valley, and emerging contemporary artists. The museum in Winchester is situated on 214 acres of formal and natural gardens alongside outdoor sculpture on a landscape once part of the 1794 Glen Burnie House estate, which is open for tours. Be sure to view the wonderful multi-media fiber art exhibit “Rock Paper Scissors,” works by New Image Artists through October 31.

The Connoisseur, depicting a Hitchcock-like figure gazing at a Pollock-esque painting, Rockwell’s illustration for the January 13, 1962, Saturday Evening Post from the private collection of Steven Spielberg. (Photo: Smithsonian American Art Museum)

MSV hours are Tuesday-Sunday 10-5. Admission is $15 for adults, $10 for seniors and teens, ages 12 and under, no charge, and free on Wednesdays, courtesy of Howard Shockey and Sons, Inc. 901 Amherst Street, Winchester, VA. For more information, call 888-556-5799.

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