Lines of tourists snaked around in front of the Smithsonian Institution as thousands of visitors waited their turn to stand in awe in front of familiar images of a nation of patriotic citizens unencumbered by want or fear, free to speak their minds and worship as they chose.
In the alley behind a big city tenement, the neighbors rejoiced as a shy boy came home from World War II. In a Thanksgiving Day kitchen, a U.S. serviceman humbly showed his grandmother that he’d learned how to peel potatoes while fighting for freedom.
In a bus station lobby, a stern old lady offers grace next to her innocent grandson as the coarse regulars of the coffee shop gawk.
These are Norman Rockwell’s America. Although his vast body of work has often been dismissed by art critics, Rockwell remains America’s most enduring and popular artist – far outselling the critically acclaimed such as Andy Warhol.
Now, more than one hundred years after his birth, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., held a special retrospective, "Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg."
Lines of tourists snaked from the show’s entrance into the Old Patent Building’s Kogod Courtyard to see familiar images that the two filmmakers have collected over the last three decades.
Inside, visitors jostled for space in front of familiar Rockwell paintings that provoked, not the hushed reverence that one would expect at a museum, but movie-theater reactions – outbursts of laughter, expressions of emotion.
Rockwell would have loved it. He always thought of himself first and foremost a commercial illustrator. Hesitant to consider it art, he harbored deep insecurities about his work – particularly when he was panned by the mainstream press.
However, what was obvious this summer was that Rockwell’s work will endure. This summer, he tapped into the nostalgia of 21st Century Americans who are longing for a time that was kinder and simpler.
Rockwell created visual stories that expressed the wants of a nation. He helped clarify our nation’s vision through the dark days of World War II, then the Korean War, and the confusion of the Civil Rights marches and the Vietnam war.
His prolific career spanned the days of horse-drawn carriages to the Apollo 11 moon landing. While history was in the making all around him, Rockwell chose to fill his canvases with the small details and nuances of ordinary people in everyday life.
He caught the essence of the American spirit.
"I paint life as I would like it to be," Rockwell once said. Patriotic, idealistic, innocent, his paintings evoke a longing for a time and place that America yearns for today.
According to Spielberg, "Rockwell painted the American dream – better than anyone."
"Critics would likely seize upon the sight" of the long lines at the Smithsonian "to observe that popular approval does not equal artistic quality," writes Ryan L. Cole, "especially when the art in question is insufficiently socially aware.
Certainly that was the view of Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik, who in reviewing the Smithsonian exhibition derided Rockwell as "the cowardly, ‘aw, shucks’ epitome of Middle America.
Rockwell "doesn’t challenge any of us, or himself, to think new thoughts or try new acts or look with fresh eyes," wrote Gopnik. "From the docile realism of his style to the received ideas of his subjects, Rockwell reliably keeps us right in the middle of our comfort zone."
And that’s why he is famous and loved and revered – and why you probably never heard of Gopnik before reading this article. The Smithsonian show, drawn from the collections of moviemakers Lucas and Spielberg, confirms that Rockwell had a deep understanding of America’s character and a masterly ability to convey it to canvas.
His vision focused on our virtues, not our sins.
"But only in the self-loathing landscape of contemporary intellectual thought would that be cause for criticism," writes Cole.
Working from meticulously staged photographs, Rockwell used small, easily recognizable scenarios to create plot-driven vignettes of American life.
His paintings, prints, and sketches celebrate family, tradition, democracy, and freedom. Here are malt shops and marbles champs; young boys running away from home and young men returning from war; romance, new and old; and inspirational national figures, past and present.
These are not snapshots from a whitewashed fantasy but pictures from a world that still exists, full of values and principles we still need.
In "The Runaway," from 1958, a young boy sits perched on a soda-fountain stool, his worldly belongings folded into a knapsack resting on the floor; he chats with a sympathetic policeman and an amused soda jerk. Despite the title, it’s doubtful the boy will end up far from home, but his flight represents a youthful desire for independence.
In Rockwell’s famous "Homecoming," a G.I. is greeted by a tenement full of friends and family at war’s end. It recreates a scene that played out thousands of times for those lucky enough to return home from combat. With a few changes, it still plays out today.
To Gopnik and other critics, this rendering is emblematic of all that is wrong with Rockwell. Why celebrate interchangeable Americans participating in harmless, small-scale civic duty?
Because in America, as Rockwell knew, democracy is most often found in school-board, city-council, and town-hall meetings.
It takes courage to stand up in a crowd of friends, family, and neighbors and make an argument for or against something.
Rockwell was right to celebrate those willing to take public stands on issues; without them, the American idea falls apart.
"Near the exhibit’s exit," reports Cole, guests were encouraged to put down their thoughts in a small spiral notebook. A quick glance through the pages shows the words ‘memories,’ ‘laughter,’ ‘tears,’ and ‘inspiring’ used repeatedly, and all followed by ‘thank you.’
"Let there be no doubt: Rockwell’s work still holds the power to move its viewers, to stir their imaginations, and beam back a bit of their own reflection.
"It continues to remind Americans of the ideals and dreams that we share."