The artist who is so often associated with capturing the iconic American culture of mom, apple pie and allegiance to country didn't always feel that way inside. Norman Rockwell, one of the most published and revered American artists of the 20th century, is known for documenting the American life, or rather, an idyllic American life. The images so many people associate him with come from the covers he did for the Saturday Evening Post — illustrations of Boy Scouts, Thanksgiving dinners and children visiting the doctor.
He captured a nostalgic era of innocence and wholesomeness that many still yearn for today. But Rockwell also saw a dark side of American life, one marked by social injustice and cultural change.
Works exemplifying both will be on view beginning March 7 at the Wichita Art Museum in an exhibition titled "American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell."
More than 40 oil paintings and dozens of Saturday Evening Post covers are in the exhibition from the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.
Beginning in his late teens, Rockwell enjoyed a successful career as a working artist, said Stephen Gleissner, curator of the Wichita Art Museum. He was named art director of Boys' Life magazine while still a teen. By the time he was 22, he had started his career as an illustrator for the weekly publication the Saturday Evening Post, a business relationship that would last nearly 50 years.
But many of the illustrations he created didn't represent his own mind-set about American life, Gleissner said.
"The images that appear so idyllic today do not necessarily portray Rockwell's artistic visions so much as they do his employers' visions, most notably those of the Saturday Evening Post," he said. "Rockwell was responsible for coming up with the idea for each and every cover, which took so much creativity and at times was very difficult."
The conservative publication had strict rules on how people were portrayed, and Rockwell would sometimes have to rework an image three or four times before it was accepted. One of his most famous images, "Blank Canvas," shows Rockwell himself sitting in front of a blank canvas with a stopwatch counting down to the deadline that is looming above.
"In many ways Rockwell is seen not through his own ideals but through the corporate structure that was imposed on him," Gleissner said.
It was not until Rockwell began illustrating for Look magazine in the 1960s that the artist was able to paint with his own voice and illustrate the important social issues that he was forbidden to address in the Saturday Evening Post.
One of the most important of these was the issue of segregation. Powerful images such as "The Problem We All Live With," which portrays an African-American girl being escorted to school by U.S. marshals while tomatoes are being thrown, helped shed light on the civil rights movement and the changes taking place in American culture.
"His work had a huge impact on audiences and he was finally able to document the reality of life rather than the ideals," Gleissner said.
Rockwell's popularity has never waned, he said. Today, his work is as widely recognized as ever and his paintings are highly prized by art collectors, not only for their subject matter but also for the skill with which they were created.
"His genuine love of the everyday life and his ability to capture universal experiences such as staring a first job, or dating or being in school, is something that everyone can relate to in his work," Gleissner said.
If you go
American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell
What: More than 40 oil paintings and dozens of Saturday Evening Post covers
Where: Wichita Art Museum, 1400 W. Museum Blvd.
When: On display March 7-May 30. A public reception will be from 5 to 8 p.m. March 26. Museum hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and noon-5 p.m. Sundays.
How much: Admission $5; free on Saturdays.
For more information, call 316-268-4921 or go to www.wichitaartmuseum.org.
Note: The Wichita Art Museum will partner with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra for concerts titled "Rockwell Reflections" on March 13-14. Images of Rockwell's art will be shown during the concert. Tickets may be purchased at www.wso.org.