This winter I went to the Norman Rockwell show not once, not twice, but three times. Not because he is a favorite of mine, he’s not. But because various friends and family wanted to go and I didn’t mind going with them. Although, the third time there, I bowed out and headed upstairs to take a look at the permanent collection.
Don’t get me wrong; I think Norman Rockwell is a wonderful illustrator. And I think it is wrong of the reviewers to compare him to the fine artists of his day: Andrew Wyeth, Georgia O’Keefe, John Marin, Edward Hopper, Neil Welliver and other realists. Instead of J.C. Leyendecker, James Montgomery Flagg and Robert Fawcett, who were his contemporaries in the field of illustration. Because illustration and fine art are not the same thing. One is not better or worse than the other, but they are quite different. They are different in intent, they are different in concept and they have different criteria.
First, let me state that I am a painter but also an illustrator. I love illustration. I am a professor of illustration and I practice illustration. But it is, as we now define things, a different genre. There are three substantial differences and Rockwell’s work has them all. Illustration is not self-expression. It has a very specific purpose, to communicate visually to a target audience. Illustration is mass-produced. It is designed and painted with the idea that the original is not what the majority of people will look at. Illustration is used usually with text. It is used to elucidate text, to visualize text or in place of text.
Norman Rockwell rarely, if ever painted anything for himself. His sole reason for painting was to satisfy the needs of a client. All of his work was designed and painted to be reproduced at a specific size, for a specific format. He was chosen by his clients because of his style both in form and in content. His work reflected the mood and feeling that they wanted to communicate with their publications. His work was not self-expression. Rockwell’s work was, and is, a narrative story—complete with actors and props. Nothing that you see was real. When reviewers criticize his work for being sappy and sweet they completely miss the point. It was just that accessibility and “chocolate box” feeling that his clients were after and he did a fantastic job communicating that. That is what illustration does. His illustration defined the look of his client’s magazines.
There are many “fine artists” who illustrated. A few doors and one floor up from the Rockwell exhibit are some absolute gems. There is a small room filled with the Civil War illustrations of Winslow Homer. But even Winslow Homer’s illustration differed fundamentally from Rockwell’s. Homer painted actual solders. He went to the front lines of the war and painted from life what he saw. He didn’t stage action, or costumes. He reported the war in a visual manner. Rockwell, on the other hand, painted models dressed up as solders, creating a still movie. The only thing that really makes Homer’s Civil War work illustration is the fact that it was mass-produced.
I think that it’s important to point out that illustration existed before the idea of fine art ever did—that the earliest cave paintings were indeed illustrations. They were painted to communicate a specific idea, not for self-expression or personal commentary. Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Da Vinci all illustrated the Bible. They all had clients who paid for their specific style and talent. They all used models and props for their work. Their work was very much done like the way Rockwell put his illustrations together. Rembrandt actually used his Jewish neighbors for his paintings of the Apostles just like Rockwell used his neighbors in Vermont.
But I wouldn’t but Rockwell in their company—and not just because their work wasn’t mass-produced. I wouldn’t put Rockwell in their company because their paintings are both illustrations of the Bible and great art. They go beyond the time and place of which they were created. There is an immeasurable quality to the painting. They go into your soul. Rockwell’s work, while quaint, and well executed, are of his time, nothing else. They are great pictures, technically exceptional, but have absolutely no depth. They are great illustrations.