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Rockwell’s Bedrock of Art

Rockwell is one 20th century artist whose piece are recognizable and relatable to many people. Surprisingly, he considered himself as an illustrator, not a “fine artist” and that title of “illustrator” was, in a way, correct.

Rockwell did not seek to paint his interpretation of life and then assemble pieces into a gallery in the hopes that it would sell for enough to pay his bills. He was commissioned by clients to create and deliver (on deadline) pieces to be published with something else…a cover, a story, a book or article. Sometimes, Rockwell had freedom to paint what he chose, but more often, he didn’t. If he was hired to illustrate “Tom Sawyer” (and he was) he had to illustrate that story…HOW he illustrated it was completely up to him.

Because he had clients and deadlines, and specified subject matter, some people (art critics) didn’t see him as a “Real Artist” and his work was often overlooked by his contemporaries. It didn’t help that the “real art” world was swept up in the Abstract art movement during Rockwell’s working lifetime. Twisting, exaggerating, and eliminating reality was in; realism was decidedly out.

And yet, Rockwell’s popularity with people soared. It sometimes got to a point where the Saturday Evening Post, a magazine which Rockwell often illustrated the cover, knew they needed to order thousands more copies any week Rockwell’s art graced their covers. A second run if that painting proved to be popular.

Because, however, he swam against the art current of his time, he and his work were written off as sentimentalist, simple, and forgettable. Time has proven that is not the case. Rockwell peppered his images with carefully thought out details to allow the viewer to discover a larger story if they wanted to spend some time looking. As for sentimental, he was, in a way. He liked to paint the world, not as it was, but the way he wished it could be…perhaps even one day could be.

And he didn’t stay with “safe” subject matter either. In the 1960s, Rockwell supported the Civil Rights Movement lead by Martin Luther King Jr. and those like him. He painted pictures that confronted the ugly reality (“The Problem We All Live With”) and offered hope too (New Kids in the Neighborhood)

For this painting, Rockwell, who enjoyed modern Abstract Expressionism, created that splatter painting (similar to what Jackson Pollack was doing) and then painted “The Connoisseur” in front. What is he thinking? Who knows? As for Rockwell, he enjoyed the break from his “usual” work and happily splattered paint on the floor of his studio like Pollack, just to make this Rockwell original “authentic”.

He was a “proper” oil painter as well, carefully layering colors, details, and textures to create a whole. His painting struck a cord with many Americans, and even now, more than 40 years after he has passed on, his paintings are still popular, and the class of art critics which once deliberately overlooked him are finding a new appreciation for his work.

So enjoy these packets of his work. If you want to find more about Rockwell, be aware that one of his paintings depicts the real-life murder of three civil rights activists, and can be hard to look at. Another, “The Problem We All Live With,” contains a word which is not one which should be said today…it shouldn’t have been said then, and Rockwell knew that. He placed it in his painting for a deliberate reason, and a good reason at that. However, if you show that painting to children, you may have to explain the context of school desegregation, what that meant, why the little African-American girl is going to school with four armed guards, and what that word spray painted behind her means. It is a beautiful, poignant painting, but each child has their sensitivities, and some are ready earlier than others to hear some of the ugly stories of our past. This is, I think, a good way to open that conversation, but I would not want to force that issue for others. The painting is referenced, and a photo taken of the model for the painting is included in the packet, but because of that spray-painted word, I chose, in the end, to not include it.

But I think it is worth a look. “The Problem We All Live With”, Google it, and see for yourself. It has become an icon.

As per usual, the top packet is the Artist Packet, meant to go with the Discover Great Artists lesson, if you’re using it, but it will stand just fine on its own too. The Tutor tips contains alternate ideas for those who feel lost teaching Rockwell-style works. Just some ideas I hope help

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