RALEIGH — When she was an art student, Stephanie Plunkett shared the day's art-world view of Norman Rockwell, which ranged from contempt to dismissal.
"I didn't give Rockwell too much thought," Plunkett recalled by phone from her job as deputy director and chief curator of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.
An academic interest in images created for reproduction - as were most of Rockwell's 4,000 or so paintings - led Plunkett to change her evaluation: "He's a great realist painter. You realize he really was painting for the ages."
Plunkett's attitude shift is not isolated. Her art instructors followed the enduring orthodoxy of abstract expressionism, the high-minded, painterly code when Rockwell was cranking out covers for The Saturday Evening Post in the 1950s. But teachers and critics have come to recognize Rockwell's value, not only as a realist painter but as a reflection of American idealism.
"There has been a reappraisal of Rockwell over the past 10 or 15 years," said John W. Coffey, deputy director for art at the N.C. Museum of Art, where "American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell," organized by Plunkett's museum, opens Nov. 7. The Rockwell show, midway through a five-year tour that started in 2008, is helping NCMA christen the premier temporary exhibition space in its renovated East Building.
In five sections, "American Chronicles" takes viewers through three phases of Rockwell's career. The earliest works, produced in New Rochelle, N.Y., show "Rockwell's connection with the stories America grew up with," Plunkett said. His 1914 illustrations for a Boys' Life story on Daniel Boone fit that bill, along with the more familiar "No Swimming," for a 1921 Post cover, showing three lads frantically dressing as they race past the title sign.
In 1939, Rockwell moved to Arlington, Vt., where he continued to work for the Post and started to turn out his most widely remembered work, including "Four Freedoms," painted in 1942, the first full year of America's participation in World War II. Sent on tour the next year, the four paintings helped sell more than $100 million in war bonds, as David Kamp notes in a 2009 Vanity Fair article that contributes to the new reckoning of Rockwell.
The painter's last phase started in 1953 with the move to Stockbridge, where the Rockwell museum tends his legacy. In Stockbridge, Rockwell started to turn out, first for the Post and later for Look magazine, the work for which he hoped to be remembered. "The Problem We All Live With" (1963), his first assignment for Look, and "New Kids in the Neighborhood" (1967), for a Look article on integration, proclaimed sincere support for civil rights, and they made a bid for respect.
"He was at the point when he felt secure enough in his career to make a stronger statement," Plunkett said. "He wanted to be viewed as an artist who was making a serious contribution. He also felt strongly about issues."
Not just Americana
Coffey saw the illustrator leaving behind the "mythology" of Americana he produced for the Saturday Evening Post, whose longtime editor, George Horace Lorimer, was a staunch traditionalist. Worse, Lorimer forbade the depiction of blacks in anything but subservient roles, an edict Rockwell had followed.
"I think to a degree he was expiating his sins - the sin of omission," Coffey said.
The exhibition includes a section devoted entirely to "Murder in Mississippi" (1965), in which Rockwell invested five weeks of solitary work to tell the story, in the horror of its climactic moment, of the killings of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss. Rockwell's studies for the painting, photos of models and other documents complement the work itself.
Although a skilled draftsman and a decent painter, Rockwell's gift was storytelling. As Kamp points out, Rockwell eclipsed his idol, J. C. Leyendecker, at the Post and later abandoned Leyendecker's amiable, hokey style for one more straightforwardly narrative. "His real strong suit - he could tell a story with such economy and such force you didn't need words," Coffey said.
But the story he told most often, at least until the Look years, was a fiction. Rockwell acknowledged that the America of his Post covers was more hoped-for than literal. From his biographical perspective, it was the small-town world of close families that he'd never known, having been born in Manhattan and raised by parents who had paid him little attention. It's also the America many of Rockwell's most avid fans so earnestly misremember. It wasn't a lie but a goal for Rockwell, an aspiration.
Inevitably, though, those misted memories complicated his reputation. Illustrators have long chafed under the perceived scorn of artists. N.C. Wyeth had wanted to be taken seriously as an artist, too. But the art world saw Rockwell as an emblem of all it rejected, at least then -- especially narrative and cheer. John Canaday of The New York Times infamously labeled Rockwell "the Rembrandt of Punkin' Crick." Eventually the name Rockwell became a synonym for kitsch.
But as narrative, and varieties of realism, regained footholds in art, people began to notice Rockwell again. In his 2006 book, "Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence," Richard Halpern considers Rockwell alongside a more recent, and far more blunt, purveyor of narrative, Eric Fischl, and finds Rockwell in good stead. "Rockwell paints an Eden before the Fall, Fischl paints one after," Halpern observes. "Fischl is Rockwell with the veils stripped away... In Rockwell, as in Freud, the sexual enjoys a privileged place precisely because it is hidden, repressed."
Beyond the innocence
How's that? Freud, sex and repression? Rockwell? Halpern says "our appreciation of Rockwell may be a knottier, more elaborate thing than mere nostalgia or escapism can explain." He ascribes to Rockwell not repression but disavowal, in which the subject manufactures a state of innocence to avoid life's unalloyed realities. So Rockwell's paintings are not as purely positive as they seem.
"They are not so much innocent as they are about the ways we manufacture innocence," Halpern writes. Take "Girl at Mirror" (1954), which depicts a young girl studying herself in the mirror, with a magazine photo of Jane Russell on her lap and a doll unceremoniously upended on the floor. It's poignant and charming for most viewers, but it is about the loss of innocence, ultimately, Coffey said.
"Part of the reappraisal of Rockwell is simply acknowledging the influence of his images. It's hard not to give the guy credit," said Coffey, who added that art historians with a cultural or anthropological bent are "the ones who will recognize Rockwell's value quickly."
"I really do think there has been a reconsideration of his work," said Plunkett. "Now the art world has become more diverse."
Art historian and critic Robert Rosenblum had once scorned Rockwell but stunned the art world by organizing "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People," which ended a national tour in 2001 by breaking attendance records at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Some critics fumed, sensing a desperate clutch for nostalgia in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, but others began to recognize the lost innocence motif, the nation anxiously eyeing itself in Rockwell's mirror.
"Rockwell was no more a man of simple vision than he was the house artist of the right wing," Kamp writes. "While his approach was calculatedly upbeat, it was never shallow or jingoistic, and his work, taken as a whole, is a remarkably thoughtful and multifaceted engagement with the question 'What does it mean to be an American?''"
Coffey was more guarded. He said the N.C. Museum of Art installation of "American Chronicles will have a room full of quotes about Rockwell, "from the sycophantic to the snarky" - an American response, to be sure. And appropriate, because not everyone accepts the apotheosis of Norman Rockwell, despite scholarly acceptance and broad popularity. "I think the jury's still out," Coffey said. "The debate's still raging."