Norman Rockwell, Tea Time, 1927, at the Norton Museum of Art

  • June 15, 2010 16:30

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Norman Rockwell (American, 1894-1978),Tea Time, 1927. Oil on canvas. Bequest of Gertrude Perlberg, 2001.23
Norton Museum of Art

Before a cozy hearth, an elderly couple sits in profile, backlit in warm yellows and oranges by an unseen flame.  The woman, nestled in her patterned easy chair at right, smiles down at her cup and saucer, which she holds daintily in her hands while a black and white cat slumbers comfortably on her lap.  Opposite her, the man wearing a long coat, cravat and plaid trousers appears to speak cheerfully as he examines his cup through his spectacles, perched squarely on the end of his bulbous nose.  He—evidently the owner of the tall silk hat, gloves and umbrella carefully discarded at his feet—is a visitor to this Victorian domicile.  He has pulled his wooden chair up close to his companion as they enjoy tea time together.  The porcelain birds and framed silhouettes face each other on the mantle above, echoing the couple’s tête-à-tête below. 

The composition of the painting emphasizes the intimacy of the scene.  The rectilinear form created by the lines of the fireplace and chairs embraces the figures of the man and woman and brings them closer together.  Moreover, the details of the room outside the confines of the hearth are left unarticulated; instead, a field of solid white surrounds the vignette, thereby keeping the viewer’s attention on the couple. 

Born into a family of modest means in New York City, the artist Norman Rockwell had wanted to become an illustrator since childhood.  He left high school and attended the Art Students League, and while still in his teens, he received a post as art director of Boys’ Life magazine.  At 22, he became an illustrator at the Saturday Evening Post, where he worked for over 47 years and produced 322 magazine covers.  Tea Time appeared on the cover of the Post’s October 22, 1927, issue. 

Rockwell called the Saturday Evening Post “the greatest showroom in America” as its readership hit 20 million by 1929, making him one of America's most beloved and familiar artists.  His Post images communicated unveiled optimism, humor and patriotism to Depression- and post-Depression-era audiences.   Typical of his Post covers, Tea Time’s innocent picture of romance exudes warmth rather than cynicism and requires no theoretical interpretation.

Despite his popularity (or because of it), art critics attacked his paintings as sentimental and contrived—picturing a whitewashed America that has never existed in reality.  Moreover, critics deemed his academic style as an anachronism during an era when expressionism dominated the art scene and the advent of photography had rendered such realistic modes of painting redundant.  In a sense, Rockwell agreed, stating that he painted America only as he wished it might be; however, he made no apologies for his realistic style.  An admirer of Picasso and other Modernist artists, Rockwell had dabbled in avant garde idioms but remained true to his own artistic strengths rooted in technical virtuosity, strong composition, and brilliant storytelling.

Rockwell’s labor-intensive creative process began with a loose sketch.  He then gathered the right models (usually family or neighbors), costumes and props to suit his vision.  He diligently sketched or photographed every detail of the tableau, posing and reposing his models, before producing a charcoal sketch and a color study.  Only after these steps would he embark upon the final product in oil on canvas.  Once a painting was approved by the publisher, it was sent to be photographed for publication.

In 1963, Rockwell left the Post for Look magazine, where he tackled topical subject matter, such as civil rights and the space program.  By the time of his death in 1978, he had produced nearly 4000 images and 800 magazine covers.  Today, as museums and artists reconsider popular culture from a postmodern perspective, Rockwell’s art is enjoying a critical rebirth.  The exhibition American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell is currently touring the U.S. and Canada, and Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, opens next month at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The exhibition American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell is currently touring the U.S. and Canada, and Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, opens next month at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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On the third Wednesday of every month, the Norton Museum of Art shares a focus on an artwork from its collections.

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