There is a comparison to be made at the Dulwich Picture Gallery,  between the work of American artist and illustrator Norman Rockwell and the Spanish painter of the 17th century, Murillo.

Make sure you take the opportunity to look at Murillo’s paintings after seeing the Rockwell, then  walk down to the end of the gallery and admire the beautiful Vermeer, which is ‘A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman‘ on loan from Her Majesty the Queen.

First, the Norman Rockwell is full of work that brings a smile to the lips, and a great deal of amused appreciation from the viewers.  I noticed several people pointing out dogs.  You probably know the Saturday Evening Post magazine covers,.  They are famous, and all 323 of them are on display.


More interesting are the actual studies and examples of the originals, which were completed in oils.  A few are in gouache.  Particularly attuned to today’s tastes are the studies such as ‘The Problem  We All Live With’, in gouache and  ‘Peace Corps in Ethiopia’.  The paint is fluid and yet dense, with texture and freedom of application, brush marks are still there and the colours are still brilliant. They dated from 1964 and 1966.

Norman Rockwell’s early works are also in very good condition, luminous and obviously  owing much to Rockwell’s admiration of masters such as Vermeer.  That is why it is so interesting to be able to compare the two painters at Dulwich.


I consider the sentimental subjects and choice of models spoils the work of Norman Rockwell, unfortunately – work which was of course not created to appear in hallowed halls of famous art galleries but to be seen on a paper journal’s cover, produced weekly, laughed at and then thrown away.


The artist’s working method was explained.  In particular I read about his creation of ‘Charwomen in Theatre’, a study of 1946.  Rockwell visited the theatre in New York, made sketches and had a photographer along to do photos of the setting, the seats, the lights and darks.  Back home he had two neighbours posing as the charladies which in the picture are reading the programme, surrounded by bucket and mops.  The colours here again are just delicious, the ladies blocked in freely and the result is tactile and fresh.

There are a lot of little boys, elderly men, sailors, grim old women, dogs, courting couples.

‘It’s lovely, isn’t it?  I heard one young woman exclaim with delight.  For me the illustrated covers of Saturday Evening Post are too twee and ‘feelgood’, there are too many stock figures, funny animals, faces in grotesque grimace.


One of the large displays of text which are on the walls of the gallery explain that Rockwell was ‘short on malice’ and I wonder which painter or illustrator is ‘long on malice’?  Maybe a cartoonist such as Gerald Scarf, but malice – with or without – seems a strong word to describe a visual creation.


Now to the Murillos just outside this exhibition.  There they are, two paintings, each of little boys, one with a cute dog.  Painted in the late 1660s, they are poor boys – they are not lovely, one child smiles.  Apparently Ruskin described them as ‘repulsive and wicked children’,  and the paintings showed  ‘mere delight in foulness’  (he was a bit weird anyway).  The paintings tell a story, just as the Rockwells do, why is the child with bread being cajoled by the boy with the dog?  You make up the answer.


The Vermeer is different again, bright, crisp shapes of the marble floor, the windows and walls, soft and slightly out of focus figures but no dog, no humour.  You can still make up the ending of the story.  Would you describe this as ‘photo-realism’?  It is more real than that.  Its realism with humanity.