Rockwell and Repin

The recent Senate hearings over the nomination of Brent Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court led to social media postings of Norman Rockwell‘s eloquent 1959 painting The Jury Room.

The Jury Room, Norman Rockwell

Seeing the painting discussed by friends abroad made me ponder what I would think of Norman Rockwell’s work if I hadn’t been raised in the U.S., where his images are so familiar and his style is so instantly recognizable.

Of the paintings I could picture in my mind, the artist most reminiscent of Rockwell to me was the 19th century Russian painter Ilya Repin. The revealing quality of the light, the abundance of narrative detail, and the stylization of the people in his paintings struck me as very similar to Rockwell’s.

The Zaparozhye Cossacks Writing a Mocking Letter to the Turkish Sultan

This seemed a surprising connection, since the two artists are from such different cultures and eras. And the artists are in many ways completely different. Rockwell’s compositions look much sparser and more “posed” than Repin’s, and his colors are less complex. Though both artists made paintings with explicit political content, Rockwell’s works, even when they take on serious subjects, are gentle and idealized. Many if not most of his paintings are downright cute. Repin’s paintings are filled with a masterful use of color. Their themes are dire and gritty, their subject matter often violent.

Nevertheless there is a similarity in their work.

Moving Day, by Norman Rockwell

Religious Procession in Kursk Province, by Ilya Repin

As often happens, I find I am not the first person to make such a connection. An online search of “Rockwell Repin” returned a first result with the subtitle Ilya Repin: Russia’s Norman Rockwell.

I also learned that mid-twentieth century American art critic Clement Greenberg’s influential essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch specifically likens Repin’s work to Rockwell’s and calls them “peasant art”, mere illustration, easily digested and of a lower order than the more intellectual abstract expressionist painting just emerging at the time. There’s a very interesting article on the subject in Hyperallergic.

As Rockwell put it: “My ability evidently lies in telling stories, and modern art doesn’t go in much for that sort of thing.”

More art and illustration

More Norman Rockwell

~ by lolarusa on September 29, 2018.

2 Responses to “Rockwell and Repin”

  1. Gracious, yes! I was reading about Repin sometime recently, and the story of the Cossack’s reply to the Sultan is an absolute treat: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reply_of_the_Zaporozhian_Cossacks

    That whole era of Russian painting is wonderful, and doesn’t seem to get much discussion in the West. Someday I need to get a good book on the topic, or at least a collection of Ivan Shishkin’s work.

  2. Hi Vinny! The cossacks’ letter is indeed hilariously filthy. It’s no wonder it’s a popular story.

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