Reviewing Rockwell Through Charcoal
"Some people have been kind enough to call me a fine artist. I've always called myself an illustrator. I'm not sure what the difference is. All I know is that whatever type of work I do, I try to give it my very best. Art has been my life." Whether one considers Norman Rockwell a fine artist, an illustrator, or sees no distinction between the two, one cannot deny that he is inextricably linked to the 20th-century American art experience. Art was his life, and this was reflected in the way we lived his art. For many, Rockwell captured a generation with his endearing imagery created for numerous publications, perhaps most prominently the "Saturday Evening Post." From an artistic perspective, though, Rockwell deserves particular acclaim for both his subtle commentaries and his unyielding attention to authenticity. This genuineness, which often took the form of meticulous study after photographs and props, can be seen in his surviving charcoal works. Rockwell was renowned for his intricately stocked compositions that were consistently the product of extensive study. No object or element within Rockwell's works was left to chance, a testament to his desire to conjure carefully crafted images. For many works, this involved a number of preparatory photographs in which Rockwell would stage his scenes immaculately and then shoot the scene for extended use in the studio. This, of course, didn't mean that Rockwell simply copied these photographs. On the contrary, it was the photograph that became the basis for an even more novel means of development: the charcoal and pencil drawing.
Rockwell, Study for Willie Gillis, USO, circa 1942 Charcoal and pencil on paper – Private Collection (Image courtesy of Christies
Examples of Rockwell's charcoal works reveal his high level of finesse in the medium. The subtleties of shading combined with line work often rendered in pencil result in compositions that are equally as compelling as their oil on canvas colleagues. In some instances, these preparatory drawings serve as the only surviving evidence of a Rockwellian creation. Such is the case for United Nations, a charcoal drawing created in preparation for an oil work commemorating the inauguration of the organization. Created in 1953, a decade after his iconic Four Freedoms series, Rockwell's striking study over flows with figure symbolizing the potential of the United Nations' mission. Though a final oil was never created – Rockwell reused parts of his drawing in Golden Rule (1961) – this charcoal drawing powerfully reminds the viewer of what Rockwell did best: capture the human experience at both its most individual and its most universal. Are you a fan of Rockwell's charcoals? Have you visited the Norman Rockwell Museum? Tell us about your connection with Rockwell and his drawings!
Rockwell, United Nations, circa 1951 Charcoal and pencil on paper – Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts