SOON IT MAY be as much of a cliche to call Norman Rockwell's painting brilliant, as it used to be to call it corny; and although brilliant is nearer the mark, the fact is that Mr. Rockwell's genius lay in how he made us feel, and not in how good or clever a craftsman he was. For one thing, he made us feel comfortable, which is something few modern artists can claim. A Rockwell calls you to it, like a storyteller. And since his paintings almost always contain a story, and the story is one we already know, the only logical reaction to have is affection - and so we do.
From May 20, 1916, when he did his first cover for the Saturday Evening Post, until his death this week, Mr. Rockwell addressed and nourished a down-home American sentimentality that he recognized as deep and serious. To do so took some courage as well as knowledge, for he knew that there are few ideas, such as the heroism of the common man, that this country lives on, wisecracks notwithstanding. In a way, painting those ideas in bold detail was to take more of a chance than being inventive or abstract. Those ideas are set in the national mind like pictures, and the pictures that don't do them justice will not survive.
Mr. Rockwell's pictures have survived, and will survive him, because he did not believe that sentimentality is cheap. The cover he did for the Post on Thanks-giving Day 1945, showing a mother and her soldier son peeling potatoes together in the kitchen; the "Four Freedoms" series; the old woman in the flowered hat saying "grace" with her grandson in a diner, overseen by the curious, silent workmen - who could paint such things well but someone who was genuinely awestruck by the mysteries of simple acts? In May 1967, he did an illustration for look called "Moving In," consisting of an expressionless black brother and sister facing two equally expressionless white boys and a girl, a moving van unloading behind them, and a world of possibility in the distance between them. There are more complicated ways of treating the subject, but none better.
From what we know of his life, Mr. Rockwell was as straightforward and gentle as his work. He was also a very funny man, who often made fun of himself, as he did in the self-portrait of his doing a self-portrait, the "model" wearing glasses, the subject of the portrait, not. Mr. Rockwell knew what he could do, and he could do people. He could do us.