Norman Rockwell’s most reproduced works depict idyllic American family interactions. Until recently, I was almost convinced that these familiar paintings represented the totality of his talent and subject matter. The Birmingham Museum of Art hosted the Norman Rockwell’s America exhibit from Sep. 16-Jan. 6, and Adam and I made it out on the last day of the exhibit.
Boy, was I wrong. Though some of his works may be the basis for “traditional American values,” many of these iconic images also demonstrate the artist’s understanding of irony and sense of humor. When Rockwell turned his attention to the national and international rapid political and social change in the 1960s and 70s, his style also shifted. His new detailing techniques and slightly different color palette create a different type of emotional experience for the viewer.
His second portrait of John F. Kennedy stood out to me from the other works of this era. Painted on a dark canvas with reddish undertones, the contrast and outlines that don’t create his suit are done mainly in light shades. Rockwell’s loose brushstrokes and contrasting create a tension that mirrors Kennedy’s troubled expression. The shadowing around and on the subject’s face is deep, making him appear tired and older. This depiction emphasizes the difference between this and Rockwell’s previous portrait of JFK.
This style is worlds away from most of the artist’s “Saturday Evening Post” covers. Though those pictures are technically perfect, the evocative use of color in this painting draws a completely different emotional response from the viewer.
To be honest, I would have missed the exhibit entirely if it wasn’t for the museum’s social media presence. The posts about upcoming events, giveaways and community involvement repeatedly piqued my curiosity about Rockwell’s work. Even two days later, the experience is still fresh in my mind.
Our world-class museum has hosted exhibits from very different backgrounds over the past few years. If you missed out on Normal Rockwell’s America, be sure to attend the next visiting exhibit. You never know what you’ll learn from the art until you experience it.