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Silver Threads: A Norman Rockwell life remembered

Bettye Anding

Bettye Anding

No artist has ever detailed the scenes and dreams of my growing-up years in America better than the late Norman Rockwell. He captured the spirit of an era that’s fast fading from memory because — well, because most of us who lived through some of it are fading fast. His covers for The Saturday Evening Post, one of the many popular magazines that arrived at our house weekly during the ‘40s and ‘50s, always fascinated and often made me laugh with joy.

The Rockwell works forged an emotional connection — a girl trying on her first prom dress, a family saying grace at their dining table, a mother being reunited with her soldier son, a little boy getting his first haircut. He was belittled by some as an “illustrator” rather than a “true artist,” but I never understood why.  Isn’t it the intent of all visual artists to tap into the emotions of their viewers?

When I ruminate on art I’m reminded of an old “Murphy Brown” TV episode in which the guy who’s always doing some painting around her apartment takes the cast to a museum to show them some of his favorite stuff. They enter a little room and don’t see any art. So they decide that the light switch on the wall is “the masterpiece” he’s brought them in to see.

And in “Art,” a hoot of a play I once saw in London, a collector buys a canvas covered entirely in white paint and tries to convince his friends that he’s on to something big. (While in town, I also looked at some great stuff at the Tate Modern: no beheading of saints for me.)

But I digress. I got to thinking about all this when I read that “America Illustrated: Six decades of Saturday Evening Post Covers” went on view this week through January 5 at M.S. Rau Antiques, 630 Royal Street, daily except Sundays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

The exhibit will feature more than 40 original works shown alongside their printed Saturday Evening Post covers. Works by Rockwell and J.C. Leyendecker, Maxfield Parrish and Clyde Forsythe spanning from the 1900s to the 1950s are being displayed and many are also available for purchase. I’m unfamiliar with the names of the latter three artists, but certain I’ve seen their works on the SEP covers before.

Says Wikipedia, “Norman Rockwell produced more than 4,000 original works in his lifetime. …. also was commissioned to illustrate more than 40 books, including Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. His annual contributions for the Boy Scouts calendars between 1925 and 1976 were only slightly overshadowed by his most popular of calendar works: the Four Seasons that were published for 17 years beginning in 1947 and reproduced in various styles and sizes since 1964. He painted six images for Coca-Cola advertising, and illustrations for booklets, catalogs, posters (particularly movie promotions), sheet music, stamps, playing cards, and murals rounded out Rockwell's œuvre as an illustrator.”

In his later years, Rockwell began receiving more attention as a painter when he chose more serious subjects, such as a series on racism for Look magazine. One example of this is The Problem We All Live With, which dealt with the issue of school racial integration.

Rockwell’s connection to New Orleans was forged with his depiction of a 6-year-old black girl, Ruby Bridges, flanked by white federal marshals, walking to the local all-white William Franz Elementary School past a wall defaced by racist graffiti. The painting was displayed in the White House when Bridges met with President Obama in 2011.

The artist’s work was has gotten pricey in recent years. His “Breaking Home Ties” sold for $15.4 million at a 2006 Sotheby's auction.The 2013 sale of “Saying Grace” for $46 million established a new record price. I wish I’d bought a painting looong ago.

Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at [email protected]