Painter's art portrays popular values of U.S. culture

The highest price ever paid for a Rockwell was 15.4 million.
The art of the prolific Norman Rockwell has long been a popular part of Americana.
A commercial artist and illustrator, he supplied paintings for mass-media advertisements for more than 150 companies, including Pepsi-Cola, Crest toothpaste and Skippy peanut butter.
He also did presidential portraits for magazines such as Look and McCall's, and of course, hundreds of Saturday Evening Post magazine covers.
Born in New York City in 1894, Rockwell studied at that city's Art Students League. His most productive years were in the 1930s and '40s. He spent his adult life in various cities in upstate New York and New England and died in 1978.
Rockwell's paintings reflected an American morality that was based on popular values and patriotism, according to Laurie Norton Moffat, director of the Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Mass., in her essay, "The People's Painter."
But as a commercial illustrator, Rockwell was never a favorite of art critics, who considered his work a step or two below fine art, or art for art's sake. In fact, only in recent years have critics begun to defend his work, said Linda Pero, curator of Norman Rockwell Collections at the Norman Rockwell Museum.
"In his lifetime, Rockwell never claimed to be a fine artist," said Louis Zona, director of the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown. "He was never taken seriously by the art world. Only now as we gain a historical perspective do we appreciate his rich ideas, and his ability to capture America at that time as no one else did. It has taken the perspective of history to refine our judgment."
Zona pointed out that, in recent years, prestigious museums throughout the country -- including the Guggenheim in New York -- have unashamedly held exhibitions of Rockwell's work.
"We now join them," said Zona.
"Lincoln the Railsplitter," the Rockwell painting recently bought by the Butler, was commissioned by a bank in 1962 to hang in its lobby.
Like most of the artist's work, it tells a story.
"Rockwell was a storyteller," said Pero. "He added elements [to 'Lincoln the Railsplitter'], including the cabin in the background and the book Lincoln is reading, to fill in the story [that the bank wished to convey]," said Pero.
The bank wanted the painting to allude to growth, achievement and the value of education.
Still, Pero described "Lincoln the Railsplitter" as "serious," and "not gimmicky, not anecdotal."
As a commercial artist, Rockwell did not set trends for the art world. "It was the other way around," said Pero. "He raised the bar for advertising illustration."
Highest-valued piece
The 1.6 million the Butler paid for "Lincoln the Railsplitter" does not even come close to the highest price paid for a Rockwell.
That honor goes to "Breaking Home Ties," which was bought by an anonymous bidder Nov. 29 for 15.4 million at Sotheby's Art Auction in New York.
"Breaking Home Ties" first appeared on the cover of the Sept. 25, 1954, edition of The Saturday Evening Post.

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