Art moves in traceable lines in a new exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum

STOCKBRIDGE — A hundred years ago Maxfield Parrish's work, especially his painstakingly crafted images of mythological scenes and fantastic landscapes, were everywhere — by one estimate a fifth of American homes in the 1920s had one of his prints on the wall. But as the modernist revolution changed what we expect from art, his reputation faded. By the 1960s, a critic would write that Parrish and his "recumbent maidens, shadowed urns, multicolored crags, and blue skies" had become suitable only for grandmother's sitting room.

The cycles of reputation and taste are one thing, but a new exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum suggests that if you look at it a certain way, art moves in traceable lines even through divisions between "fine art" and "illustration." Every artist has a teacher, and the tradition of realistically depicting images — of how to draw human figures, arrange them in space, and visually relate stories and meaning — has never really went away. In some cases, it can be traced all the way back to when the Renaissance opened a whole new world of image-making.

"Keepers of the Flame: Parrish, Wyeth, Rockwell, and the Narrative Tradition" opens Saturday and runs through Oct. 28, and brings together centuries of work in the realistic tradition, focusing on how those threads lead up to three iconic illustrators — Parrish, N.C. Wyeth, and Rockwell.

"All are similar in their skills as a result of their traditional training, but they are very different in their results," said curator Dennis Nolan, who is also an illustrator and teacher at the Hartford Art School.

Much of the show hinges on the work of the central three illustrators, and includes some of their most renown works. That includes Parrish's "The Lantern Bearers" (1908), which was created for a magazine cover, and shows a group of figures in a blue-ish twilight carrying large orange lamps. It is done in his signature style, with very thin layers of pigment painted between layers and layers of varnish. It was a painstaking process that took months to complete, but allows light to go through the translucent layers and bounce back, creating an effect almost like stained glass.

While Parrish focused on mythological and allegorical scenes, N.C. Wyeth focused on adventure and action, and was famous for his illustrations that went with books. Among the works is "In the Crystal Depths" (1906), of a Native American in a canoe, which Nolan praises for its balance of light and dark and dynamic composition.

"As a painter, that painting really knocks me out, how much he got from so little, how he parred the composition down to just a few big shapes and dashed that paint on there," he said.

Stephanie Haboush Plunkett, deputy director and chief curator at the museum, said the decision to focus on their work is a result of their place in the "Golden Age of Illustration," from the advent of high-speed printing around the Civil War until the Second World War.

"These were probably the most prominent illustrators of their day," she said. "They were the artists Rockwell would have looked to as being the greats of his era."

The exhibit also traces a number of Rockwell's works, including "Shuffleton's Barbershop" (1950), which was recently auctioned off by the Berkshire Museum. Others include "The Inventor" (1952), a work commissioned for 50th anniversary of the Ford Motor Company, shown here with Rockwell's own study drawing for the work from the Rockwell museum collection.

There are also a few of his well-known ones, including "Girl at Mirror" (1954) of a girl practicing her look, and "The Stay-at-Homes" (1927), of an old man and a young boy watching a ship sail out of the harbor.

"Rockwell's heart is right there on the canvas," Nolan said.

A lot of the work comes from a time when the art world was making a sharp split between fine art and illustration, even as they were among the most recognizable artists of their time. Parrish prints were everywhere, Wyeth visually defined volumes by writers like Robert Louis Stevenson, and each of Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post covers would be seen by millions of people, as astonishing change in just a generation when seeing a work meant being in the same physical space.

"I'm presenting history, and I wouldn't say an alternate history, but a history that hasn't been discussed much," Nolan said. "As far as a divergence, I'd say the cubists and the abstract expressionists were the divergence by inventing their own picture-making devices and vocabulary. For Parrish, Wyeth, and Rockwell what changed was not the tradition, but the clientele."

The emergence of mass media, without patronage of church and royal families, created new audiences. "The split in fine arts is more of an art historical discussion, which in a lot of cases leaves out people like Rockwell," he said. "Illustration is just as large a chunk of visual culture as anything else."

Nolan said these artists also stood out for having access to so much art — to travel broadly and see prints at home — and in their willingness to experiment with technique. That included Parrish with his glazing technique, Wyeth and the elements of impressionist broken color, and Rockwell with his dynamic symmetry, which may be part of being an American artist.                                                                                                                        

"The artist as an individual, an adventurer and explorer, is something accepted and even expected," he said.

But much of the exhibit explores the webs of influence and connection among dozens of artists. For Parrish and Wyeth back to prominent artists like Thomas Anshutz and Thomas Eakins, and institutions like the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. For Rockwell, it includes artists like George Bridgman, who taught generations of students at the Art Students League in New York.                                                                                               

But then the exhibit looks at who came ahead of them, particularly French artists like Jean-Leon Gerome, Jacques-Louis David, and Paul Delaroche, and the institutional presence of the cole des Beaux-Arts. It keeps going into the 18th century, with artists like Joseph-Marie Vien and Carle Van Loo.                                        

And before, it goes into Italy and the great artists of the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci, Fra Lippo Lippi, and Sandro Botticelli. In Nolan's timeline, it begins with Lorenzo di Bicci, a Florentine artist who lived 1370-1427, and is represented by the earliest work in the exhibit, a Madonna from about 1400 on loan from Vanderbilt University.                                                                                                                                                           

To help navigate through the dozens of artists and works, the exhibit includes an 86-inch touchscreen display, featuring illustrations by Nolan.                                                                                                                        

"Each artist is given a platform so you can see their background, how they're related to one another, and some of their work," said Rich Bradway, the museum's director of digital learning and engagement.                              

All are tied together by a thread of creating realistic images. "To be able to convincingly tell the story, drawing is key, and it remains that way," Plunkett said. "That's the one thing that links all of these artists — the ability to create convincing, realistic depictions."                                                                                                              

In some ways this sensibility is regaining some of the ground it lost in the last century. George Lucas' new museum in Los Angeles dedicated to "narrative art" is part of it. But also in how these traditional techniques are essential for a diverse range of fields from animation, to graphic novels, to virtual reality and video games. And some of the old practices are even finding new, surprising homes — for example, Pixar's animators carefully studied Parrish's backlighting technique to hone their approach to internal shadowing to better depict plants.     

It has sparked something of a backlash — one high-minded critic describes the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art as "the treacle museum" — but Nolan prefers to steer clear. He said that as new techniques and traditions emerge, they don't displace old ones.                                                                                                              

"As a teacher and a historian I see that every time an innovation comes along it doesn't replace, it just adds," he said. "No one has stopped painting with oils, and when oils came they didn't wipe out egg tempura. It's just another medium."                                                                                                                                                 

He said he also remembered growing up in San Francisco, and the art he would see by Parrish, Wyeth, and Rockwell in books, and the exciting new images by contemporary artists he would see at art museums.          

"I didn't make any clarifying difference between them, and I haven't yet after 70 years," he said. "I think it is all picture-making, and they are all artists. To label something is kind of limiting. These are all valiant human endeavors, and extraordinary accomplishments."


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