Now he's gone, the tall skinny man with a shock of white hair who always looked like a Norman Rockwell portrait as he bicycled across the small town set of Stockbridge, Mass.
Now, for a few days his fans and detractors alike suddenly feel a kind of nostalgia . . . for his nostalgia.
There were, of course, critics who called him the Lawrence Welk of the art world, insisting that bubbles floated off the ends of his brushes and that his work was sticky with sweetness. There were others who adored him, saying that he was the artist among con artists. But now they can both be heard calling him an artistic link to our past, a visual historian.
Norman Rockwell was a craftsman, an artist who insisted upon being called an illustrator, and a gentle, sophisticated man. But no, not a historian. His folksy vision of this country was no more accurate than the bleak world of Edward Hopper. His magazine work was no more a total reflection of our society than the photographs of Walker Evans.
Rockwell wasn't a man of many words but these few were significant: "Maybe as I grew up and found the world wasn't the perfectly pleasant place I had thought it to be, I consciously decided that if it wasn't an ideal world, it should be and so painted only the ideal aspects of it - pictures in which there were no slatterns or self-centered mothers, in which to the contrary, there were only Foxy Grandpas who played baseball with the kids and boys fishing from logs and got-up circuses in the backyard."
He knew that he didn't portray America. He portrayed Americana.
I suppose that every society carries in its soul some collective longings, some common spiritual values. We invest these back into our history and then hold them aloft as a standard of comparison for the present. For most of his 82 years, through 360 magazine covers, that was what Rockwell recorded: our ideals and our common myths.
As a chronicler, he was born at a perfect time in a perfect place in New York City, a few years before the end of the 19th century. He grew up into the world of hustle and boosters and made it in the competitive and high-pressure business of magazine illustrators. Like many of us, he must have looked back with some longing on the century of Simpler Times and Smaller Towns. So, he made a click, a link with others, sharing with them some vast and powerful yearning for a way of life that he defined as American.
Rockwell painted our American religion - The Four Freedoms - and our real heroes - the Common people. He then went on to engrave images of our strongest ideas - not those of equality or even justice - but those of everyday decency.
In the world of Americana, his boys were all Tom Sawyers, his doctors made housecalls and his dogs were puppies. But his subjects were usually the old or the young - as if even he had trouble finding a place for the real, mid-life American in his scheme.
He spent his worklife reaching back to make connections. His illustrations in the 1920s often carried the feeling of the 1900s. His paintings of the 1930s have more of the patina of a Teddy than a Franklin Roosevelt. In wartime, he carefully drew our peaceful nature and even in his self-consciously relevant work of the 1960s, Rockwell pushed the buttons of the past.
It was as a hard-working artist, a businessman, a husband of three wives that he portrayed the imagined ease of everyday life. His subjects had foibles rather than problems. They lived through a comedy of manners rather than human tragedies. So, it wasn't a mirror he held up to society, but the hungering eye of a man of his time. A man who filled his canvasses with what many of us felt was missing.
In the 1960s, after President Johnson rejected a portrait of himself by John Hurd, Rockwell went to paint him. "Hurd, of course, had painted him as he was," Rockwell said later, "while I had done him as he would like to think he is."
Well, consciously or not, he painted America as we would like to think it was. As we would like to think it is at root. His legacy is an interior landscape . . . of our very best side.