In her new biweekly column, art historian Alison Gillmor looks beneath the surface of newsworthy art.
What it is: Girl at Mirror (1954) by beloved American artist Norman Rockwell, now on view at a major retrospective exhibition of his work at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
What it means: Rockwell, who painted 323 covers for the long-running magazine The Saturday Evening Post, was unfailingly generous towards his characters. It shows in his insight into the lives of girls and women, whom he often portrayed in Post covers as caught between the press of social expectations and their own feelings.
Rockwell is known as a master of all-American populism, but in fact he's often referencing the history of art. In centuries of European painting, the image of a woman before a mirror, often nude or half-nude, was used as a moral treatise on vanity. (Female vanity, of course.) This was often a hypocritical little exercise in which the male viewer got to castigate the woman for her sinfulness while at the same time enjoying the spectacle of her nakedness.
Rockwell uses some of the same props as this historical precedent -- the looking-glass, the makeup, the comb and brush -- but he offers an entirely different take on the woman-and-mirror scenario. He shows not the girl's vanity but her uncertainty and vulnerability, as she wistfully compares her reflected image to a Hollywood glamour shot. (The photo is of Jane Russell, known for some incredibly racy publicity pics for the 1943 western The Outlaw.)
Rockwell seems prescient about a very current idea: the pressure of media images, with their unrealizable standards, on young girls. He also catches a particular psychological moment, as the girl is caught between childhood, symbolized by a discarded doll, and the painful self-consciousness of puberty. She seems ambivalent about what comes next, both yearning for and fearing the power of womanhood symbolized by Russell's sultry gaze.
Why it matters: For a long time, Rockwell was dismissed by critics as a mere illustrator and hopeless sentimentalist. In the last decade his reputation has started to turn around: Postmodern critics, for whom the line between high art and popular culture is pretty fluid, have pointed to his accessibility, his emotional immediacy and his brilliance as a visual storyteller. Using obsessively thorough preparatory photos and careful sketches, he creates tableaux crammed with compressed narrative and vivid characterizations.
Rockwell is sentimental, sure, but he's also sincere, empathetic and endlessly interested in ordinary moments, as his delicate handling of this picture proves.