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Norman Rockwell: Illustrator and creator of America's visual myths

Norman Rockwell: A Definitive Catalogue, by Laurie Norton Moffatt. Introduction by David H. Wood. Hanover, N.H.: University of New England Press. 2 Vols. $170. $195 after Jan. 1. Norman Rockwell confused his critics rather effectively by agreeing with them. He was self-described as an illustrator, and when they carped that his paintings were photographic, derivative, maudlin, and all the rest, he simply replied, ``Yes, but do you like them?'' or the equivalent. But if anyone wants to treat Rockwell as the artist he never pretended to be, they'll need this huge ``definitive catalog,'' two mammoth volumes, containing just about everything he ever did, even some illustrated memos.

We have Rockwell images all around us in this country, so ubiquitous that his work is part of the visual myth. Just the fact that so much came from the conception of one man is a phenomenon worth studying. And the value in this compilation is that we can trace his development from his earliest assignments for Boy's Life magazine to his most sensitive, if overly glorified, renditions of American life and leaders.

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He had a classic art school training, studying under the stern hand of George Bridgeman in the Art Students League in New York. Those were the days when art students had to learn a more complete knowledge of musculature and bone structure than surgeons, and have a better grasp of perspective than architects.

He worked in a highly competitive field, when magazine art directors had James Montgomery Flagg, J. Leyendecker, Howard Pyle, and Edward Abbey to compare him with. To compete, to sell in such an atmosphere, an illustrator had to be able to put action, mood, pathos, and even good old bathos into a painting, and bring it off with sufficient evident skill to evoke some admiration for his cleverness.

Rockwell developed two qualities many of his contemporaries lacked. First, he had the ability to create a feeling of depth in his painting, where others were content with a flat representation. And second, he had a sense of intricacy. Rockwell enjoyed detail in machinery, in architecture, in interiors, and in costume. As a result, there's more to look at, to rest the eyes on, to study, after you've grasped the initial idea. All this depth and loving detail has one basic formula behind it -- hard, painstaking work.

The books also testify to the sheer, staggering volume of work he did. Not only the Saturday Evening Post covers, which he did for 47 years, but advertising illustration for everything from breweries to hosiery. In 1937, he adopted the use of the camera and began to paint from photographs, which speeded things up. He was criticized for this, but he claimed that he did it out of necessity, and to spare his models long, painful hours in stiff poses. It also allowed him to use bits and pieces of different scenes, to be accurate in his Americana.

Certainly he was tendentious, but most artists are. He didn't show an imagination too much beyond the average American's; he used stilted, almost cartoonlike gestures to express moods. His characters are mostly New England types, even if they're not real New Englanders.

He tended to glorify what most people want to see glorified. Perhaps this was because he wanted, for commercial as well as personal reasons, his paintings to be liked. He said, ``I cannot really convince myself that a painting is any good unless it is popular. If the public dislikes one of my Post covers, I can't help disliking it myself. This is foolish. I know it. Popularity alone is never a measure of excellence. I should trust my own judgment.''

Toward the end of the second volume, there are some paintings and sketches he did for his own pleasure, not for hire. These are portraits of family friends, and some travel scenes. Surprisingly, they are not very good. It's as if without a customer or a publication looking over his shoulder, he took less care, found the work itself less interesting. For some artists, the act of painting is its own reward; for Rockwell the reward was in the enjoyment he was able to produce in hundreds of thousands of readers. And for what it's worth, he still can.

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