Norman Rockwell thought of himself as a reporter on the events and the character of American life. A household name, he has been called "the people's painter" and "the Dickens of the paintbrush."
Above all, he was a storyteller, said Crocker Art Museum chief curator Scott Shields.
"He was an illustrator, but he created such iconic characters and moments. Everyone has a visual inventory of at least 10 of his images."
"American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell," which opens at the Crocker on Saturday, chronicles his career with more than 50 paintings, 323 covers for the Saturday Evening Post from his 47-year tenure at the magazine, and war bond posters done during World War II, as well as drawings and studies for finished works.
The works are primarily drawn from the collection of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. Additional works at the Crocker are from the Pfizer pharmaceutical company and Sun-Maid Growers of California. Many of the works from the Rockwell museum were part of the artist's personal collection.
Ranging from an image of Daniel Boone from Boy's Life magazine done in 1914 to a scene of tourists and soldiers in Bethlehem at Christmas from 1970, the show explores themes of family ("Christmas Homecoming"), innocence ("Girl at Mirror"), and heroism ("The Peace Corps") that both reflected and profoundly influenced American sentiments and ideas.
Moving beyond the Post years to his work in the 1960s with Look magazine, the show also covers images dealing with social issues such as war, racism, poverty and injustice. One of Rockwell's best- known images, "The Problem We All Live With," documents the realities of desegregation in the South.
It was recently shown at the White House at the request of President Obama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Ruby Bridges' historic walk on Nov. 14, 1960, which integrated an all-white public school in New Orleans.
Norman Rockwell was born in New York City in 1894 and was interested in art from an early age, often joining his father in copying illustrations from magazines in the evenings after dinner. After his sophomore year in high school, Rockwell took up serious art studies at the National Academy School in New York City and then transferred to the Art Students League, where he studied anatomy with George Bridgman and illustration with Thomas Fogerty.
On Fogerty's recommendation, Rockwell did book illustrations for publisher McBride, Nast and Co., which opened the door to his success as a commercial illustrator.
In 1916, he submitted his work to the premier showcase for illustrators, the Saturday Evening Post, where he became one of America's top illustrators. In 1921 he showed his work at the National Arts Club alongside works by N.C. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish and J.C. Leyendecker, who all influenced his development. Rockwell worked at the Post until 1963, and the magazine brought his illustrations into the homes of millions of Americans. In the days before television, magazines such as the Post were the dominant entertainment medium, offering news of current events, advice to readers and popular fiction.
Many of Rockwell's most famous works were done during the years with the Post, including his affectionate scenes of childhood innocence. "No Swimming" is a carefully choreographed image of boys caught skinny dipping. "Girl at Mirror" is a poignant scene of a young girl's passage from childhood to womanhood. Here the story includes such details as a doll tossed aside, makeup on the floor and a movie magazine with a picture of Jane Russell.
"Girl at Mirror" takes up a traditional subject of painters from Edouard Manet to Pablo Picasso and illustrates Rockwell's interest in the history of fine art. In "Art Critic" he parodies an art student looking at a Flemish portrait modeled after Peter Paul Rubens' wife, and in "Triple Self-Portrait," a tour de force, he shows the canvas he is working on with self-portrait images by Rembrandt, Albrecht Durer, Picasso and Vincent van Gogh pinned to it.
Though best known for humorous subjects, Rockwell was able to turn his attention to more serious matters after leaving the Post and going to work for Look. Among the compelling works in the show is "Murder in Mississippi," a depiction based on the slaying of civil rights workers Michael Schwermer, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney.
The anatomy of Rockwell's working process is shown through the inclusion of charcoal preliminaries, oil color studies, and the large final painting, as well as notes, letters, and photographs Rockwell used in developing his subject.
Rockwell died in 1978 at age 84, but his fame lives on through his mostly optimistic vision of the American scene. In some ways you might think of Rockwell and Andy Warhol as opposite sides of the same coin. Both were commercial artists, both examined American values and themes, both used humor and irony, and both are household names. Where Rockwell is affirmative, Warhol is dark-spirited. Both are American to their cores.
AMERICAN CHRONICLES: THE ART OF NORMAN ROCKWELL
Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento
When: Nov. 10 through Feb. 3. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, except 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday. Closed Mondays, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day.
Cost: $10 adults, $8 seniors 65 and older, $8 military and college students, $5 youths 7-17, free for children 6 and under, and for museum members.
Information: (916) 808-7000. www.crockerartmuseum.org