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Norman Rockwell: Testimony, Denunciation and Dreams of American History

Norman Rockwell, The Problem We All Live With, oil on canvas (c)1964, Licensed by the Norman Rockwell Estate Licensing Company, Niles, IL. From the Permanent Collection of the Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts

By Janet Batet

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) is an essential icon of contemporary American History. His irreplaceable artistic legacy stands as a fabulous panorama of American daily life, providing us with glimpses of more than six decades of significant moments in our history; and we know:  “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

“American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell” is the title of the colossal retrospective exhibition presented at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale and curated by the Rockwell Museum. The show features a savant selection of Rockwell’s most renowned oils on canvas: all 323 of his Saturday Evening Post cover illustrations, as well as some sketches and photographs used as preparatory documentation by the artist.

Rockwell’s distinctive iconography became very popular during his 47-year career at the Saturday Evening Post, the most popular magazine in the United States in the early part of the twentieth century. If the Saturday Evening Post meant unparalleled visibility for Rockwell at a time when periodical prints dominated media coverage, this magazine is also responsible for the common and extended misperception regarding the artist’s social concerns; he was largely identified with a restricted vision, only interested in the American white middle class.

However, Rockwell’s illustrations chronicled both: everyday life moments of happiness and innocence where most of the time kids are the protagonists, as well as the impact of social and political events in American History, such as: the Great Depression, two world wars and the civil-rights movement.

His contributions to Look magazine during the sixties -included in the present exhibition- are a shocking testimony of the painful realities of segregation in the South.

If viewers are familiar with the excellent but restricted idyllic vision of innocence and frivolity that characterized his contribution to the Saturday Evening Post, American Chronicles… -the exhibition now open at the Fort Lauderdale Museum- is an exceptional opportunity to discover the other face of Norman Rockwell’s artwork. These potent, consciousness-raising paintings portraying civil-rights workers and Black people in the middle of their courageous struggle for social rights in America speak to his major contribution to the arts and history.

Norman Rockwell’s oeuvre is an essential part of the visual American legacy. His prolific and paradigmatic career offers us a marvelous account of the innocence, audacity, prejudgments, fears and dreams that lead America during the twentieth century.

“American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell” is on view at Museum of Art - Fort Lauderdale through February 7th, 2010.

1 E Las Olas Blvd. Fort Lauderdale, FL, 33301 www.moaflnsu.org