Look, Norman Rockwell was no white-bread hack

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The Brooklyn Museum is about to change the way you think about Norman Rockwell.

The legendary-but-easily-dismissed artist made a career out of his white-bread depictions of American life. But the new exhibition, opening on Nov. 18, shows that the New York native painter was far more innovative and interesting than detractors would have you believe.

The key was Rockwell’s decision in the 1930s to base his paintings on photographs instead of live models, which freed him to create montages.

“If a model has worn a red sweater, I painted it red — I couldn’t possibly make it green,” Rockwell once said. “But when working with photographs, I seem able to recompose in many ways, as to form, tone, and color.”

To demonstrate, “Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera” shows off the photographic work behind some of Rockwell’s most famous paintings, such as “The Tattoo Artist,” which depicts a tough soldier getting inked up without batting an eye; and “Dugout,” which shows the always-hapless Chicago Cubs being berated by fans of the Boston Braves — a composite of several photos.

And a portion of the exhibition devoted to Rockwell’s Civil Rights paintings is particularly eye-opening.

But the best example of Rockwell’s photo-to-painting conundrum is his famous piece, “Girl at Mirror.”

In the original photo, the sad girl is merely looking at herself in a mirror as her mother cleans up in the background. In the finished painting, the girl is still sad, but this time she’s looking at a magazine opened to a picture of Jane Russell — an addition that Rockwell later said he regretted.

Depicting the real America is never easy. But Rockwell did a better job than many think.

“Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera” at the Brooklyn Museum [200 Eastern Pkwy. at Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights, (718) 638-5000] from Nov. 19 through April 10, 2011. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

Updated 5:21 pm, July 9, 2018
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