The Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, is a comprehensive program that will inspire pioneering scholarship, preserve the artistic contributions of our nation’s leading visual commentators, and tell America’s story by reflecting the richness and diversity of our ever-changing world.
American illustration art and visual studies are fields on the brink of discovery. For proof of this assertion you need merely to look at the auction house catalogs for American paintings over the last ten years to see an increasing volume of illustration art coming into the marketplace and achieving higher and higher sales totals. Indeed so popular has collection illustration art become that there are now multiple auction houses with sales dedicated solely to illustration art.
Nevertheless the discussion of and interest in illustration art can still elicit discouraging comments from the scholarly and academic community. Too often illustration art is dismissed as having been done for hire and therefore not really a fine art. If being done for hire were the only criteria determining whether something was art, then art historians would also have to dismiss Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling at the Vatican, and Giotto’s fresco sysle for the Scrovegni (aka, Arena) Chapel in Padua, as well as any altarpiece paid for by a member of the congregation and created to embellish a church.
In this era of burgeoning cultural and visual arts studies it is perhaps easier to see the relationship of the creation of illustration art to the larger issues of the time. For example, the remarkable illustration work of Norman Rockwell, America’s best-known illustrator, combines prodigious technical mastery with accessible imagery. He painted common people in familiar settings—neither glamorized nor contrived. They were everyone’s neighbors, friends, and relatives. What made them appealing was Rockwell’s ability to lend them a nobility of purpose. The nobility of the common man resonates with Americans who, whatever their political leanings, still respect the principles on which the nation was founded. “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
Although reverence for the common man is at the core of American democracy, Rockwell’s aesthetic was not only tied to the national consciousness but also to the social, political, and economic circumstances of mid-century America. Norman Rockwell may have been the most famous artist of his time, but others shared his vision.
In 1942, the same year that Rockwell was working on the Four Freedoms, painter Edward Hopper finished Nighthawks, an iconic tribute to Depression-era forbearance. Robert Frost published The Gift Outright, a poem exalting the land at a time when invasion seemed a real threat, and Aaron Copland composed the rousing Fanfare to the Common Man. Copland tried out several titles for the piece prior to its debut. Like Rockwell, Copland was inspired by Roosevelt’s annual message to Congress, and among the names he considered was Fanfare to the Four Freedoms.
Rockwell, Hopper, Frost, and Copland lived very different lives, each fascinating and none free of controversy and heartbreak. Yet the creative output of these four men is surprisingly unified, bound by a force more dynamic than their own condition—the pull of a culture struggling to sustain individual freedom in the face of global conflict and economic depression.
Within this complex network of national ideals, historic circumstance, and artistic expression lies the mission of the Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies—the exploration of the relationship between images, their creators, and our culture. Beyond the obvious appeal of an accessible painting or the nostalgic pleasure of recalling the first appearance of Rockwell’s inspiring Four Freedoms paintings in The Saturday Evening Post, is the rigorous study of the interdependence of artist, audience, and society. Understanding this connection will provide a richer context for interpreting our shared history as well as inspiration for future innovation and exploration.