AKRON, Ohio — A traveling exhibit of Norman Rockwell works opens a cross-country tour Saturday at the Akron Art Museum and highlights the beloved artist's growing acceptance by a mainstream art community that had long spurned him as too kitschy and commercialized.
The rarely circulated works from the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, include 41 oil paintings and tear sheets of more than 320 of Rockwell's nostalgic, often patriotic Saturday Evening Post magazine covers chronicling a half-century of America.
The exhibit, the first in the galleries added with the museum's soaring Coop Himmelb(l)au-designed expansion that opened in July, continues through February 3.
It will travel to the Orlando Museum of Art from March 1-May 26, the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, from November 8, 2008-February 1, 2009, and the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, from November 14, 2009-February 7, 2010.
Rockwell fans will see many of their favorites, including "The Discovery," in which a wide-eyed boy finds a Santa Claus suit in an upstairs bedroom, "No Swimming," with fleeing boys pulling on their clothes, and "Triple Self Portrait," with Rockwell looking at himself in a mirror as he paints his somewhat younger-looking portrait.
Paintings are mounted low on the wall, allowing visitors to look at many of Rockwell's characters eye-to-eye. The Saturday Evening Post covers cascade down the gallery wall, decade by decade, marking wars, holidays, romantic moments and the surprise treasures of everyday life.
"He had a way of seeing the best in us," said Rockwell museum director Laurie Norton Moffatt, who came to Akron to see the exhibit installation. "I think that shines through in his characters and his people and his storytelling scenes, which are filled with hope and optimism, that relentless optimism that is part of the American character and the American spirit."
But are down-home illustrations that appeal to Main Street really great art? The art world increasingly is coming to view Rockwell as an artist who captured America in tender, sometimes humorous moments.
"We're starting to realize that he was one of America's Old Masters and he probably represents the 20th century as well as any American artist," said Louis Zona, director of the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio.
Zona has witnessed Rockwell's box-office appeal. Last year, the Butler paid $1.6 million for its first Rockwell painting, "Lincoln the Railsplitter," a 7-foot canvas portrait, and museum attendance skyrocketed.
"It's been magic," Zona said. "I don't think I'm exaggerating when I tell you it has probably doubled our attendance. The response has just been amazing."
At the Indianapolis Museum of Art, visitors notice immediately if the staff moves its Rockwell, "The Love Song," with a swooning young woman listening as two old men play a clarinet tune.
Rockwell's appeal comes from his near-universal recognition, said Harriet G. Warkel, curator of American Art before 1945 at the Indianapolis museum. When museum visitors stand in front of a Rockwell work, "They almost do not need you to tell them the name of that artist because they can identify with him," she said.
Warkel attributes that to the connection people make with Rockwell, his characters and his story scenes. "He has a sensitivity to who people are and how they react in certain situations, and he adds this element of humor that is just instantly recognizable without making fun of people," she said.
Rockwell fans can expect to broaden their appreciation of Rockwell when they see his original works, said Mitchell Kahan, director of the Akron museum.
"People really don't know Norman Rockwell," he said. "They know reproductions of his works. They have not seen the original oil paintings and they are totally gorgeous, exquisite and magnificent. They are works of great art and taste."
Warkel said an original creates a different experience than a reproduction.
"It speaks to you in a different manner," she said. "First of all, the colors are more vibrant, there's more texture to the canvas and the artist's hand is always evident in it."
Kahan said a re-evaluation of Rockwell's talent has occurred as art experts and museum directors who had frowned on Rockwell's commissioned work for magazines and corporations have gained an appreciation for his work.
"In the mid-20th century, abstract art sort of triumphed over figurative art. After World War II, people who were doing figurative art were thought to be old fashioned," Kahan said. "Today we have a much more open-minded view about what constitutes important art."
That re-elevation has led to an accession squeeze for art museums: Some who spurned Rockwell as too kitschy now find they can't afford to buy increasingly popular Rockwell works or can't find a seller.
"It's been a very quick re-evaluation, a very quick change in attitude and many museums are left in the lurch," Kahan said.