Derek Gentile: What was Rockwell thinking?



I was thinking about famed Stockbridge artist Norman Rockwell the other day, probably because I read there was a new biography out about him.

I haven't gotten hold of it to read it, but this isn't really a review. I just wanted to make a point.

I've always enjoyed Rockwell's work, but I have to admit, until I started writing stories about him and about his art, I didn't really appreciate him very much.

Alex Ross, who is well-known to just about every fanboy on the planet as one of the all-time great comic book artists, had an exhibition at the Rockwell a year or so ago. I interviewed him for almost an hour, and he waxed almost euphoric about Norman Rockwell.

That isn't unusual. The interesting thing to me is how deeply Norman Rockwell's work is looked at and dissected these days.

Maybe 10 years ago. I met a guy named Harry Lempert in Lenox. Harry was one of the early stable of artists for DC Comics. With editor Gardner Fox, Harry created the original Flash (Jay Garrick, for the fanboys who read this) in 1940.

By the time I met him, Harry was retired, but he had some great stories about the old days. I considered Harry one of the iconic artists of what is now called "The Golden Age" of comics. He was a gentleman as well as a great talent.

Before he passed away a few years ago, we spoke from time to time, and I remember mentioning that I was covering an event at the Norman Rockwell Museum the next week. Harry was impressed.

"He was magnificent," Harry said of Rockwell. "What detail! The work involved in creating those portraits!"

I was equally impressed, although by then I was aware of Rockwell's universal appeal.

But one of the things Alex Ross and I talked about in that interview last year was that for a vast majority of "Golden Age" and "Silver Age (1960-80) artists like Harry, these jobs were a gig. This was a way to pay the rent and feed the family. I'm sure Norman Rockwell didn't paint a large majority of those Saturday Evening Post covers thinking, "These will be in a museum some day, for all the world to admire!"

For example, Lempert was, I think, a little confused one time when the organizers of a comic book convention offered to fly him and his wife to San Diego for a big event there. He went and he couldn't believe how well he was treated; "like a VIP!" he said.

"You're an icon, Harry," I told him.

"I guess so," he laughed.

I remember reading a funny (to me) interview with a Silver Age artist named John Buscema. Buscema drew such legendary characters as the Hulk, Conan and The Avengers for Marvel in that span.

The interviewer was asking John (a little breathlessly, in my opinion) what was going through his mind when he first drew Captain America or Hawkeye or Conan.

And Buscema's basic response was, "I'm sorry. I just don't remember it. It was a job. That was it."

And that's how most of the old-timers in the comics field looked at it.

And that's how Rockwell looked at it, which is fine. The reason he is who he is, is that like any sports or entertainment Hall Of Famer, Rockwell's work was always at a high level, for an extended period of time. And, unlike those grainy videos of Bill Russell or Jerry West, we're lucky enough that a huge chunk of his work is still available to see.

I guess my roundabout point is, I don't know what Rockwell was thinking when he drew any of his amazing paintings. Alas, I don't really care, as long as I can still look at it.

To reach Derek Gentile:,
or (413) 496-6251.
On Twitter: @DerekGentile


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