Every time I step into the National Portrait Gallery (also known as the American Art Museum and the Museum of American Folk Art) I feel very peaceful and a little happier. As a former history major, it’s nice to be in a building devoted to showcasing characters from the past.
The current Norman Rockwell exhibition hits this spot perfectly. It is devoted to the past, but the characters it represents were never real. They never lived–no one could be that sweet, American, industrious, noble, and charming for more than a moment. And a moment is what we see and love.
Rockwell set his scenes with a detail akin that used by movie directors like Hitchcock and Coppola. He filled his scene with clues about the character. Everything in the picture is there for a reason; it builds the story for the viewer. Rockwell took an idea, set the scene, placed the models himself, drew them over and over and painted until it was perfect.
But for the viewer, all the process involved equals one moment, one moment that now, thanks to the way we grew up, means something distinct to the viewer. Happy Birthday Miss Jones (1956) bundles all my thoughts and wonder and anxiety about the secret lives of children, how they grow to be adults and lose that innocence they take for granted, and how they always know the truth and makes all that appear in one moment. What you see might be something different.
The drawings and paintings are from the collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. I found this very fitting; movie directors, who are accustomed to setting their own scenes to tell tiny stories within a frame, should see Rockwell as a master. It is a tribute to Rockwell that each picture is completely self-contained and self-explanatory. Walking through the exhibition is like taking in story after story, all for free!
I highly recommend taking the time.
The exhibition runs until January 2.