Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) painted people and so did Rene Magritte (1898-1967). What is the difference?
Many art critics look down on Rockwell and many people may not like Magritte too much. I have found that those who do not know much about Magritte, however, think his artwork is intriguing enough to view, while few art critics take Rockwell seriously as anything other than an illustrator.
It would be an interesting survey of people to see how many find interest in a Magritte, and how many art critics think of Rockwell as anything but an illustrator.
One parallel between the two artists is that both put their hand to commercial art, as Magritte took to designing wallpaper early in his career in order to earn an income.
Rockwell, of course, is famous for his covers adorning the Saturday Evening Post and, later, illustrations for Look magazine and other periodicals.
A point to ponder is how much of the commercial aspect infused Magritte’s art and how much fine art found its way into Rockwell’s painting.
Interestingly, there are two Rockwells and there are two Magrittes.
There is the Magritte of early cubism and futurism, struggling to get at another way to see the world. Then he saw a painting by Chirico and—eureka!—it inspired to him take another route as in 1926 he created his first “Magritte” work, The Lost Jockey. It is close to the approach of the movement of Surrealism and, eventually, the group invited him to become a member. Magritte’s art was the iconic type of surrealism with its everyday views given a strange twist.
Painting in this style, it occupied him for the rest of his life except for the vache or “nasty” period during WW2.
Rockwell began illustration right at the beginning and always thought of himself as such. Nonetheless, after his long association with the Post, he took on work with Look magazine and began to paint about the Civil Rights movement. He had already painted the Golden Rule in 1961 after reading some ideas about comparative religion, and having failed to begin a similar project for the UN, he set about to represent a diverse group of ethnic and religious groups.
Following this, one of his paintings, The Problem We All Live With, remains a strong statement during a time of unrest.
So what is the difference? Rockwell painted scenes as one may like to remember them, the romanticizing of illustration, but later he perceived how conflict might bring together humanity. Magritte painted scenes that he derived from other styles, but soon broke out to present his haunting vision of the unexpected in human perception.