Tracing Norman Rockwell's "Art"

NPR's The Picture Show blog has a fascinating look at the techniques used by Norman Rockwell to create the iconic images that many of us grew up with. It seems that Rockwell's paintings were actually tracings of photographs, and some are questioning their validity as "art."

I'm not among those skeptics. My definition of art may be looser than others, but I think the human creativity can manifest itself in infinite variety, and it's the result that counts, not the process. As the NPR article points out, Rockwell was in total control of every detail of the process - selecting the subject matter and models (most of whom were fellow residents of his hometown of Stockbridge, MA), working with a hand-picked stable of photographers, directing the photo shoots, and, finally, transforming the results of those photos to a medium of paint. In itself, the process is interesting, but it's the result that defines his work as art: his work stimulates the imagination and memory, and has an uncanny way of creating an attitude of peace, joy, and/or amusement in the viewer.

Further, if you take the time to compare the details of the original photo with the final artwork, you'll see that Rockwell's technique wasn't really "photorealistic." Take a look at the side-by-side comparisons of some of his paintings and the photos he used as starting points, and it will be clear that Rockwell made conscious decisions about details, omitting or altering those that didn't contribute to what he was trying to achieve with each scene. Some of those edits were so extensive that the use of the term "tracing" is inaccurate and unfair.

Whether or not you consider Norman Rockwell to be a true artist, his contribution to the tapestry of American culture is undeniable. And I suspect he'd be amused by discussions such as this.

Ron Shick's book "Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera" explores in detail the artist's working methods. I haven't read it, but it sounds quite interesting.

5 Comments

Eric, I'm guessing that some of those questioning the validity od Rockwell's art (because of the photo tracings) are the same people, or from the same school that has criticized the vailidy of his art all along. 30+ years ago, a friend in my college's art department insisted that Rockwell was a commercial illustrator, and NOT at artist.

I suspect there are similar, ongoing arguments in most - if not all - of the media that come under the "Arts" heading.

Eric, I did not know that about Rockwell. Admittedly, while I have always enjoyed his work, I am not real strong on his biography - although I can't say I'm surprised, really, by his consideration of himself ... he's never really struck me as someone who placed himself on a particularly high pedestal, as others are wont to do. Thanks.

"... as others are wont to do WITH THEMSELVES," I meant to say. Me? I've always elevated people like Rockwell to what I consider a well-earned pedestal.

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This page contains a single entry by Eric published on December 7, 2009 7:57 AM.

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