Norman Rockwell’s “Study for Breaking Home Ties,” 41 3/4 × 31 3/4 in., 1954, charcoal on paper

Say the name Norman Rockwell, and many iconic images spring to mind. His tenure at The Saturday Evening Post lasted nearly 50 years, starting in 1916 when he was just 22. Even now, his work resurfaces online frequently — proof that the social commentary he produced, often unappreciated by critics of his day, has staying power. It has, in fact, remained part of the American dialogue all along.

The exhibition, “Norman Rockwell: Process to the Post,” at the Speed Art Museum, up until November 11, examines the painstaking process the legendary illustrator undertook to produce covers for the weekly magazine. A charcoal study he did for “Breaking Home Ties,” published on the Post’s September 25, 1954 issue, takes center stage in the exhibition.

The study, displayed in partnership with Bloomington’s Eskinazi Museum of Art, loaned from their collection, presages the advent of photorealism by more than 10 years, but the fine details in the 41 3/4 × 31 3/4” black and white piece display a fidelity to the concrete world that make it stand out. It’s a unique opportunity to get a closer look at the artist’s work, most often seen at much smaller dimensions.

Accompanying the charcoal are several photographs Rockwell used for reference, some including the artist himself, demonstrating postures and expressions he envisioned for the work. These are presented with information about his process, giving viewers a look at how much preparation, often lasting up to four months, went into his covers for the weekly.

Personal influence

As always, Rockwell was looking to communicate a feeling, but this piece was more personal than many of his other works. “Breaking Home Ties” focuses on a rural ranching father and son, waiting for the train that will take the young man off to college.

There is an examination of masculinity at play here. “The underlying dynamic is the sentiment of a father, probably very stoic in his personality type, who’s trying to come to terms with his son leaving home — something that Rockwell was experiencing right around the same time. This had a very personal meaning for him,” said Kim Spence, Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photography at The Speed Art Museum, who helmed the exhibition.

The Norman Rockwell Museum’s website quotes the illustrator from 1960, “That year my three boys had gone away and I’d had an empty feeling — it took me a while to adjust without them. This poignancy was what I wanted to get across in the picture. But there was humor in it too… I drew a collie dog with his head on the boy’s lap. I got most of my fan letters about the dog. You see the father couldn’t show how he felt about the boy’s leaving. The dog did.”

The details Rockwell chose for the image all contribute to the story. Various sketches, photographs, and doodles leading up to the production of the final oil painting show elements that didn’t make the cut. Absent from the charcoal are the red cloth and lantern seen in the final version, a detail many viewers of the time would have understood as tools to flag down a passenger train at locations so rural, there was no train stop.

Dean Cornwell, “A Man and Woman in an Interior,” 31 1/2 × 42 in., 1923, oil on canvas

While we can’t say that illustration is a lost art, the level of craft, the careful attention to narrative elements produced to evoke readers’ emotions, are not evident in modern illustrations. While Rockwell is a true master of the form, work of his contemporaries within the exhibition act to create a context, and give 2018 museum visitors a historical sense of the craft as a whole, highlighting other evocative illustrations of the day.

“Norman Rockwell: Process to the Post,” displays illustrations by Georges Rouault, Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, and Louisville artist Dean Cornwell. There is even a sculptural tableaux, “Why Don’t You Speak For Yourself, John?” by artist John Rogers based on a line in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” creating connections between literature to illustration of the era.

Rockwell’s style was highly influential. Throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s, plain or geometric backgrounds typically offset the subjects of cover illustrations. Rockwell’s highly ornate backgrounds, adding humor and feeling to his work, became the template for many of his contemporaries. While critics may have seen those details, the expressions of his subjects, and choice of topics as overtly sentimental, Rockwell’s choices, and his fine execution tell us a lot about how Americans of the day saw, and wanted to see, themselves.