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Norman Rockwell uplifts at Utica's MWP Art Institute 

click to enlarge "New Kids in the Neighborhood" 1967. - COURTESY NORMAN ROCKWELL MUSEUM COLLECTION
  • COURTESY NORMAN ROCKWELL MUSEUM COLLECTION
  • "New Kids in the Neighborhood" 1967.
Of all the artists whose work reflects the social climates of their time, precious few become household names. The mere mention of da Vinci, van Gogh, O’Keefe, or Warhol recalls their respective styles and even specific works.

But belonging to an even more exclusive group are artists whose work is not only universally familiar, but universally loved. Easily falling into this category is American illustrator Norman Rockwell, whose ubiquitous art — from his memorable magazine covers to his iconic posters peddling war bonds — has become nostalgic, if idealized, representations of American life that still feel relevant today.

So relevant, in fact, that it is worth the two-hour trip to the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute in Utica to take in an exhibit of his work.

The installment, simply named “Norman Rockwell,” runs through Sept. 18 and details the breadth of Rockwell’s talent through examples of his commissioned works as well as art he created on his own time. Those pieces, along with accompanying reference photos, sketches, curatorial text, and even samples of work that his benefactors rejected, provide insight into the inspiration and creative process behind one of America’s most enduring artists.

click to enlarge "Rosie the Riveter" 1943. - COURTESY NORMAN ROCKWELL MUSEUM COLLECTION
  • COURTESY NORMAN ROCKWELL MUSEUM COLLECTION
  • "Rosie the Riveter" 1943.
“Norman Rockwell is really one of America's most beloved illustrators, and yet his artwork really transcends illustration,” said Stephen Harrison, the deputy director and chief curator at the Museum of Art at Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute. “He wasn't just illustrating a particular story or subject. Rather, he was trying to capture the American spirit. He lived during much of the 20th century, so that really enabled him to cover everything from prosperity to problems.”

Among Rockwell’s best-known works are his illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post, a relationship that spanned 47 years, from 1916 to 1963. They depicted small moments in everyday life while the nation slogged through two world wars, the Great Depression, post-war prosperity, and entered the civil rights movement.

With some exceptions, his work largely ignored the global and domestic turmoil of his times to instead highlight acts of heroism, lighthearted humor, and a sometimes mythical version of American values.

His covers — all 323 of which are displayed in the exhibit, many with faded mailing labels attached — was likewise detached from any of the storytelling inside the Post. While the magazine contained non-fiction, fiction, and features, his illustrations captured relatable moments of nothing and everything. The freedom of a child on an outdoor romp with a dog, a young serviceman jilted by his sweetheart, grownups paying bills.

click to enlarge "A Scout Is Always Helpful" 1939. - COURTESY NORMAN ROCKWELL MUSEUM COLLECTION
  • COURTESY NORMAN ROCKWELL MUSEUM COLLECTION
  • "A Scout Is Always Helpful" 1939.
“He wasn't painting bread lines during the Depression,” Harrison said, singling out a large original painting that was part of a 1941 calendar for the Boy Scouts of America in which a teen scout rescues a golden-haired girl from drowning. Swaddled in a patchwork quilt, she clings to him as he wades through knee-high water to a boat. A kitten is perched on his shoulder, apparently also saved from the tilted wreckage of a house in the background.

“That was inspired by the hurricane of 1938 that ravaged New England,” he said. “And so he was trying to portray that spirit of helpfulness that the scouts try to instill in young boys.”

Overall, these works showed us we have much more in common than not. But though Rockwell had a lot of artistic freedom, he was nevertheless at the mercy of art directors.

“For example, the Post would never allow African Americans to be portrayed in any way other than a servile position,” Harrison said. “So he could paint them as a porter on a train or as a maid in a household, but never the central character of the picture. And by the ’60s when the civil rights movement was really well underway, he just couldn't stomach it any longer.”

Rockwell famously broke with The Saturday Evening Post in 1963 and began working for Look magazine, which gave him more freedom in terms of his subject matter.

That year, his work, “The Problem We All Live With,” depicted 6-year-old Ruby Bridges being escorted by U.S. Marshals on her first day at an all-white New Orleans school. The scene is cropped to take the viewer down to her level as she marches with innocent determination past a racial slur scrawled on the wall and navigates thrown rotten produce.

In a 1967 work for Look, “New Kids in the Neighborhood,” Rockwell envisions two groups of children — two Black siblings, the others white — in a moment of curiosity and hopefulness. They stare at one another in front of a house where a man unloads items from a moving truck.

“Both sets of kids are holding baseball gloves, and you have a sense that they're about to be playing not too long from now,” Harrison said. “But he's placed someone looking out of a window in the corner up there, a white neighbor looking out in trepidation and fear. And so he's layered over this the very adult problem of discrimination, but is showing that through kids, these problems might well work themselves out.”

click to enlarge "Freedom from Want" 1943. - COURTESY NORMAN ROCKWELL MUSEUM COLLECTION
  • COURTESY NORMAN ROCKWELL MUSEUM COLLECTION
  • "Freedom from Want" 1943.
The exhibit also includes portraits Rockwell painted of the presidential candidates from 1968, as well as reverent sketches and photographs he and his wife Molly made of Indian citizens, refugees, art students, and worshippers at a mosque when they traveled in their elder years.

Rockwell’s work has a sweetness to it, but it’s not saccharine. While he didn’t address the darker themes of American history by showing the tragedies outright, one can detect his feelings on the matters in several of the works represented in this exhibit, particularly those he created after his break with the Post.

Aside from the beloved-household-name category of artists, he fits into another group of optimistic, lead-by-example artists that includes Mr. Rogers and the creators of Sesame Street. There’s levity in the lessons. Rockwell’s work acknowledges that tough times are part of life, but like Fred Rogers, shirks despair and seems to say, “Look for the helpers.”

Rebecca Rafferty is CITY's life editor. She can be reached at becca@rochester-citynews.com.
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