The Norman Conquest

When you dream the American dream, what pictures appear in the cloud over your head? For me, as for millions of others, it's the idyllic images of Norman Rockwell, the premier American illustrator. Or is that the premier illustrator of America?

Either way, if you have never seen the works of Norman Rockwell, you should climb back in your UFO and go home. If you would like to see them up close and personal, the Phoenix Art Museum will be hosting an extensive traveling exhibition of his work from Saturday, January 27, through Sunday, May 6 (also see the story on page 61). The venue is expecting big crowds, so advance ticket purchase is highly recommended. It will be worth enduring the crush for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see all 322 of Rockwell's whimsical Saturday Evening Post covers, plus some of his original oil paintings -- such American realist icons as The Four Freedoms series and The Problem We All Live With.

You might think this man who managed to capture the childhood of America with his paintbrush must have grown up just a baseball toss from Opie Taylor's house. Actually, Rockwell grew up on the streets of New York City. As a boy, he would sit on the roof of his tenement house and watch the German and Irish street gangs go at each other in the alley. The future can look pretty glum for a kid from the streets, but this kid could draw. In high school the teachers gave him an ultimatum: Stop doodling or get out. So young Rockwell got out.

He began to draw professionally when he was just a teenager. By the time he was 22, he was commissioned to create a cover for The Saturday Evening Post, the highest achievement an illustrator could reach at that time. His association with that venerable magazine lasted 47 years. It wasn't until he was an adult that Rockwell moved out to the country and began living the life he drew about.

Most art museums turn up their collective noses when it comes to anything that smacks of commercial art. Illustrators are the redheaded stepchildren of the fine-art world. So in 1973, Rockwell took steps to preserve his legacy by opening the Norman Rockwell Museum in his adopted hometown of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and that very collection is coming to the Phoenix Art Museum.

"Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People" is full of some of the most recognized and cherished images in our collective unconscious. To many people around the globe, our nation will always be a place of swimmin' holes, big family dinners with all the trimmings, girls in pigtails, and apple-cheeked boys with loyal old dogs. Maybe that America doesn't really exist, and maybe it never existed at all, but isn't that why we call it the American dream?