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Catholic Art in the Style of Norman Rockwell
Humor, sentiment, and sentimentality of everyday situations in Rockwell style touch our hearts with a Catholic point of view
By Joseph Pronechen
Whether you’ve seen many or just a few of his scores of paintings and illustrations primarily for the cover of Saturday Event Post, you’ll easily remember and identify Norman Rockwell’s work.
He found the humor, lovable eccentricity, the sentiment and sentimentality in often idealized scenes from everyday life. Maybe it wasn’t the way life really was, but the way we pictured it to be.
Was there a Catholic art like Rockwell’s?
Surely there was. The Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Conn., proves it with one current main exhibit called “The Art of Illustration: Columbia's Cover Story.”
Published by the Knights, Columbia is the largest circulation Catholic publication in North America, a Catholic Saturday Evening Post. From the 1930s to the 1980s, magazine’s covers presented a continuous steam of stories and vignettes in paintings in the same popular Saturday Evening Post style, whether by Rockwell and other artists, some of whom did a number of Columbia covers too. Often these wonderful scenes had a Catholic or religious perspective.
Whether they did or not, anyone could enjoy them, such as the scene with two Vincentian nuns in habits complete with those unforgettable huge white-winged veils casually strolling past a shop where a disappointed florist is placing a sign in his window for Easter corsages.
Or one of the many with Rockwell-like humor, such as Tall Tale Fish Story from 1970. A fisherman opens his hands to show his parish priest the size of fish he caught, but the priest is somewhat skeptical because behind the man, his truthful young son shows the priest the quite different-sized small fish his father actually caught.
Both of these were done by William Luberoff, one of the best and most productive of illustrators. He illustrated over 60 Columbia covers.
The oldest cover in the show is by Luberoff and dates to 1939. For Catholic Press Month he pictured a sterling Knight who represented Catholicism. He wields the sword of truth to strike and kill the dragons of ignorance and error.
In the bicentennial year of 1976 Luberoff also did a serious George Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge, seen countless times over the years.
In 1975, another combination of religion and patriotism appears in an illustration of the Immaculate Conception surrounded by images of the Liberty Bell, a traditional fife and drummer, and angels. It reminds us Our Lady is the patroness of our country
Humorous scenes abound in the show. Sand for Sale tickles us as two enterprising children find a snowstorm the ideal time to sell sand to a hapless neighbor trying to get to work but whose car is stuck in the snow.
Plowed In gets us thinking when the Christian response should be as a family with three youngsters have finished shoveling out their home only to see the town plow pack them in again.
Policeman and the Golfers shows us an obviously upset policeman exercising patience as he looks at some sheepish, and obviously sorry golfers looking back at him. One of them just made a hole-in-window on his police cruiser. Rockwell humor all over again.
Duty, self-preservation, or invention — which will it be in Postman vs. Sprinkler. It pictures the postman’s dilemma as he ponders the situation: two sprinklers water the lawn on either side of the house’s sidewalk, and overlap the walkway too.
The humor can subtle and not have to blare out to make us chuckle.
Such a Rockwell-like scene appears in Winter Day Dream. With snow falling outside, a husband at the breakfast table looks over a magazine advertising “Fun in the Sun.” His wife is distracted by the magazine herself as she pours their coffee. As we follow the stream, we see it’s ending on the table, not in the cup.
Jimmy’s Locksmith Shop by Donald Winslow takes a little while to notice what’s going on because of its very subtle humor. Thinking of Jimmy’s job, studying his reaction, then taking good notice of his pockets should unlock the humor.
Winslow has other works in this show. Notably, in 1950 he studied for a time with Rockwell and even posed for some of his covers. Not only is Winslow’s work reminiscent of his teacher while at the same time being original, but Rockwell repaid the compliment by posing as a fisherman for Winslow's April 1962 Columbia cover. (Th cover is not in this show.)
Winslow’s Bedtime Prayers (see it here) captures a father teaching his young son to kneel and say his prayers. It’s one of those tremendously heartwarming glimpses into family life that should bring back memories of what was or what should have been, and maybe inspire some dads to repeat this scene in their own families.
Speaking of sons and fathers, Luberoff’s illustration of Joseph and young Jesus working together in the Carpenter Shop is a beautiful illustration for meditation. Their remarkable faces reflect a host of thoughts and emotions as Jesus is getting a lesson in woodworking from Joseph.
This beautiful religious scene is one of literally one of the hundreds, into the thousands mark, Luberoff did in his lifetime for various uses for other places.
Some illustrations are indirect in their message. Trumpet Practice from 1967 is a wonderful Rockwell-like scene as a mother stands on a wide front porch, broom in hand, listening intently to her son’s friends on the sidewalk. Her son with trumpet in hand stands “at attention” next to her, his eyes searching for an answer as his three football-clad buddies try to convince her to let him join them for a backyard game. Will she or won’t she let him? Either way, we can tell this boy will keep the 4th Commandment and obey his mother.
Family plays a big role in the illustrations. In the 1959 Off to College, at the railroad station a serious-looking young man in striped jacket and bow tie hands car keys to his dad while his mom quietly cries and the collie in their car carefully watches the scene unfolding. His master is off to St. Polycarp, declares the big sticker on his suitcase.
Fathers as well as mothers play an important and equal part in these illustrations. The Wild Sled Ride has a close-up of a father with his thrilled and wide-eyed young son belly-flopping on a hair-raising ride down the slope in a Rockwell look-a-like scene.
In Leaf-Raking, dad rakes while six youngsters jump, and romp, and play in the piles. Mom takes it all in, looking at the scene with an “Oh my goodness!” expression!
The Spirit of Thanksgiving from 1955 captures another affecting scene in which a family of five stands in prayer around the table. The food is meager food. The room is dark. But the picture of the Last Supper on one side of the window and the crucifix on the other side tell us where their hearts are, poor family as they are.
To add to the uplifting illustrations Luberoff’s Thanksgiving Dinner Prayer touches our hearts as we look at an elderly husband and wife, their family grown and gone, who are now alone at the dinner table. Over a small turkey, their heads are bowed reverently in prayer. It’s a very poignant scene.
In a different way, so is Luberoff’s Holly for Jesus. Who can remain indifferent seeing this illustration of a little child bundled in red hood trimmed in white fur and reaching toward a statue of Mary holding her Christ Child? In her white and red mittens she carefully holds a spring of holly, giving it as a gift to the baby Jesus.
One more illustration gives us not only another Rockwell scene but sums up much about the show. In Photo Album Memories, and older husband and wife, he with his arm around her, sit looking over a photo album. We see them surrounded by photos of past family good times they’re reminiscing over.
Their faces beam with these pleasant memories. Ours should, too, for all the scenes which can easily move our sensibilities and hearts.
The show presents nearly 70 rarely-seen examples from the 200-plus originals for Columbia covers in the museum’s collection. The exhibit includes finished covers, studies and even a few pencil sketches, arranged according to the four seasons. The exhibit runs to mid-September, 2016.
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