Norman Rockwell cranked out covers for The Saturday Evening Post in the 1950s. Since then, teachers and critics have come to recognize Rockwell's value, not only as a realist painter but as a reflection of American idealism.
"There has been a reappraisal of Rockwell over the past 10 or 15 years," said John Coffey, deputy director for art at the N.C. Museum of Art, where "American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell" opens Nov. 7.
The Rockwell show, midway through a five-year tour, is helping the museum christen the premier temporary exhibition space in its renovated East Building.
In five sections, "American Chronicles" takes viewers through three phases of Rockwell's career.
The earliest works, produced in New Rochelle, N.Y., show "Rockwell's connection with the stories America grew up with," said Stephanie Plunkett, chief curator of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. His 1914 illustrations for a Boys' Life story on Daniel Boone fit that bill, along with the more familiar "No Swimming," for a 1921 Post cover, showing three lads frantically dressing as they race past the title sign.
In 1939, Rockwell moved to Arlington, Vt., where he continued to work for the Post and started to turn out his most widely remembered work, including "Four Freedoms," painted in 1942, the first full year of America's participation in World War II. Sent on tour the next year, the four paintings helped sell more than $100 million in war bonds.
The painter's last phase started in 1953 with the move to Stockbridge, where Rockwell started to turn out, first for the Post and later for Look magazine, the work for which he hoped to be remembered. "The Problem We All Live With" (1963), his first assignment for Look, and "New Kids in the Neighborhood" (1967), for a Look article on integration, proclaimed support for civil rights, and they made a bid for respect.
"He was at the point when he felt secure enough in his career to make a stronger statement," Plunkett said. "He wanted to be viewed as an artist who was making a serious contribution. He also felt strongly about issues."
Coffey saw the illustrator leaving behind the "mythology" of Americana he produced for the Saturday Evening Post, whose longtime editor, George Horace Lorimer, was a staunch traditionalist. Lorimer also forbade the depiction of blacks in anything but subservient roles, an edict Rockwell had followed.
The exhibition includes a section devoted entirely to "Murder in Mississippi" (1965), in which Rockwell spent five weeks of solitary work to tell the story, in the horror of its climactic moment, of the killings of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss.
Coffey said "American Chronicles will have a room full of quotes about Rockwell, "from the sycophantic to the snarky" - an American response, to be sure. And appropriate, because not everyone accepts the apotheosis of Norman Rockwell.
"I think the jury's still out," Coffey said. "The debate's still raging."