A steady stream of eager Sacramentans and out-of-towners began entering the Crocker Art Museum the moment its doors opened at 10 a.m. Saturday.
Before the museum closed at 5 p.m., more than 1,200 people had seen the exhibit, "American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell."
The pipe-smoking, bowtie-wearing Rockwell was the iconic artist who told America's stories through his illustrations and paintings, chronicling the homespun, humorous and sentimental snapshots of ordinary people getting through life's daily dramas.
As one critic observed, "He took the everyday moments in life and made them heroic."
Along the way, he captured the character of a nation in steady transition and in conflict with social issues that occupied a broader, more serious canvas racism, isolation, war.
"Rockwell tells what we think of nostalgically as the quintessential American story, which is part of his popularity," said Lial Jones, museum executive director. "But this exhibit will be revelatory for people who think of him as just a feel-good artist."
The viewers in the third-floor Barr Gallery on Saturday were as multigenerational as the characters in the 50 paintings and 323 Saturday Evening Post covers on display.
As they paused in front of some of Rockewell's most famous works, their laughs, gasps and exclamations could be heard loud and clear: "Awesome!" "Amazing!" "I never realized "
The most profound piece in the collection is "Murder in Mississippi" (April 1965), which depicts the killings of three civil-rights workers.
Studying it closely was Littleton Alston, a sculptor and professor of fine arts at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., in town visiting friends.
"It's evident that Rockwell was underrated," he said. "He transcended the role of illustrator and transitioned into a painter. ('Murder in Mississippi') is a perfect example of that. It's very powerful, showing a desolate landscape of racism and hatred.
"There's a string that runs through his work, almost like social realism," Alston said. "He had a lot to say, but it wasn't truly examined. Only now (in retrospect) can we look at it. We've always valued his paintings as commercial art, and now we are valuing them aesthetically."
Standing nearby were accountant Allen Hoey and his wife, Donna, from Indianapolis, in Sacramento to visit relatives.
"We planned our trip around the opening of this exhibit," Allen Hoey said. "Rockwell was the artistic hero and social critic of my time, a man who had his finger on the pulse of America and the world. What is amazing is that he could put (scenes) on canvas in a way that everybody can still interpret today.
"Growing up in the Sacramento Valley in the 1940s and 1950s, I can relate to some of his scenes, like the three (skinny-dipping) boys running away from (the property owner's wrath) in 'No Swimming' (1921)."
"Rockwell entertained so many generations," Donna Hoey said. "We absolutely love the different characters he drew and the different subjects he brought into his paintings from the current events of the day, to a child finding a Santa Claus suit in his father's bureau drawer ('The Discovery,' 1956)."
Sacramento private investigator John Powell attended the exhibit, which runs until Feb. 3, because he has always loved Rockwell.
"You almost get to know the people in his paintings from the expressions on their faces," he said. "How he did that has always been so intriguing. Now I'm learning quite a bit about him, (such as) his (involvement) in the civil rights movement."
Michela Hendrickson and her two children were slowly making their way down the long hallway lined with Rockwell's framed Saturday Evening Post covers, from 1916 to 1963.
"I thought it was important for them to see the Post covers because you just don't see anything like them anymore," said Hendrickson, a claims adjuster who lives in Folsom. "I was telling the children that Norman Rockwell illustrated the human condition and our sense of humanity."
"His paintings look just like pictures, but they're not," said Jacob Hendrickson, 12. "My favorite is the one where the girl is sitting in the school office, and she has a black eye, and she's smiling (in triumph; 'The Shiner,' 1953)."
"I think he's an amazing artist," said Jillian Hendrickson, 10. "He captures what everybody is doing. I think that's cool."
AMERICAN CHRONICLES: THE ART OF NORMAN ROCKWELL
Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento
When: Through Feb. 3, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, except 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays. Closed Mondays, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.
Cost: $10 adults, $8 seniors 65 and older, $8 military and college students, $5 youths 7-17, free for children 6 and younger, and for museum members.
Information: (916) 808-7000, www.crockerartmuseum.org