Rockwell was an artist and illustrator who depicted our world during many periods of history

I recently read a piece on Norman Rockwell that reminded me why I love his talent. He gave us a photorealistic look at an America we all pine for today. His works are solid, honest, trustworthy, the spine of our country. After reading the piece, I dug out a book I bought when newly married in the 70s. The big, handsome, 328-page book is filled with so many honorable reflections of our country. It looks almost new, with little wear or tear, so I must have quickly grown tired of viewing the beautifully done pieces that showed decency at its finest. Why?

Rockwell was an artist and illustrator who depicted our world during many periods of history. He began his paintings with a collection of photographs and then composed his own piece from those. His works were such a part of our lives that I remember conversations about his art that graced the covers of The Saturday Evening Post.

A Story Waiting to Be Told

Why do you suppose we no longer seem to want a beautiful piece of art with a composition like “Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” featured on the cover of the Post on April 29, 1950? The brown tones of the painting are so warm and rich, truly a wonderful catalyst for the look of any family room or even a gentleman's den. The piece features a local business, much like the ones we all grew up with, except it’s after hours and the door is locked for the night. The three gentlemen visible in a lit adjoining room are each playing an instrument—a violin, cello and clarinet. It’s not clear who the barber is, but my guess it is the lovely gentleman in the white shirt playing the clarinet. The idea of the business, the conversation and the dreams that must have been generated in this fine small town barbershop touch my heart.

Do we believe ourselves to be too sophisticated to enjoy the simple contentment shown in Rockwell’s paintings? Do we think that using such homey art in our houses will make us seem unrefined. I, for one, love the realism of Rockwell’s work that can have you making up a story to go with the painting. (In fact, there is a Hallmark movie “Shuffleton’s Barbershop”) “A Family Tree,” the Post cover from Oct. 24, 1959, depicts a family and all the crazy generations that bring us to “today.” At the bottom you see a pirate and then progress up through society to an enchanting, wholesome-looking little redheaded boy. No doubt juicy stories and good gossip lie behind those (sometimes red) faces. You can’t help but look at Rockwell’s work and come up with a tale or two. Art that makes you ponder beyond what you are seeing is art worth seeing in my mind!

My walk down memory lane with Rockwell included a detour to my dear sister-in-law Judy (Colvin) Sigars, who is no longer with us. Judy was such a perfect symbol of the enchantment of life in a small town. She loved life, loved her roots and enjoyed all the characters that make up the Mayberry's of the world. Because of the sheer smallness of small communities you get to know all—or at least a good share—of your fellow residents. Our small-town lives are still different today because we are not quite as rushed or pressured as our big-city counterparts. Judy started collecting Norman Rockwell reproductions before I even realize how famous he was for the amazing Post covers. She loved his works for the pure and simple reason I am revisiting it: because they made her feel good.

After all this study of Norman Rockwell, I certainly think that adding these charming, thought-provoking pieces to your home is a wise and a healthy thing to do.

The Sweet Spot of Framing

So, how can we incorporate these reflections of a simpler time into the homes of today? Perhaps framing them with the dignity they deserve will make them more acceptable. Far too many prints are just dropped into a wooden frame without much consideration for the composition of the work. I do believe that if you are going to invite some of these pieces into your life, you need to find a skilled framer who can frame the piece to its finest. Study the work and find the very best matting and frame to honor the art and showcase it to the finest.

Years ago while I was teaching, I met a very skilled gentleman who owned a frame shop in Denver. He framed works for major city's galleries, so I truly believe he knew his stuff. He cautioned my class about allowing the frame to draw too much attention from the art—very much like the dress wearing the bride instead of the bride wearing the dress. The frame should complement the piece rather than the interior it will reside in. He explained that every piece has what he called the “sweet spot”—a subtle aspect that will guide the matting and framing after careful study. For example, Rockwell’s “Looking Out to Sea” features an older sailor, what appears to be his grandson and his faithful dog, all looking out to sea. I would only consider a frame with some weight, reminiscent of a heavy and reliable fishing boat. Despite the seascape, the painting features many variations of green, which would be my color choice of for the matting. While there is a red handkerchief in the sailor’s pocket, I think it is too obvious to tap into for the matte. The sea is huge and the vessels that must travel it must be trustworthy and strong. The red would not enhance that strength, but the depth of the green would.

Here’s another example—this one of a painting I’m sure you all remember. In the “Doctor and Doll,” the gentle older doctor is listening to the “heart” of little girl’s doll. His demeanor is as caring and sincere as if he had the stethoscope on a newborn. The little girl is just too perfectly adorable with her lumberjack plaid skirt, winter coat and red beret and mittens. An interior designed around this painting would be as warm and fuzzy as the composition of the work of art. Delicious touches of candy-apple red pervade the painting, from the doctor’s diploma and a book to the little girl’s mittens and beret. It is a color palette absolutely presenting itself to you. Imagine this piece above a family-room fireplace in a room heavy with rich mahogany, well-worn leather, Oriental rugs, warm pieces of aged brass and a pair of amazing red wool sofas. Magnificent!

I hope I have encouraged some of you to revisit Norman Rockwell’s work and bring a piece or two into your home. After all, nothing adds a level of comfort like a comforting scene. Have a wonderful week and I will be here next Saturday for coffee.

I will leave you today with a quote from Mr. Rockwell, just because I like what he had to say:

"Eisenhower had about the most expressive face I ever painted, I guess. Just like an actor’s. Very mobile. When he talked, he used all the facial muscles. And he had a great, wide mouth that I liked. When he smiled, it was just like the sun came out.”