HARTFORD — Norman Rockwell painted this picture in 1953, the year after Jackson Pollock painted “Blue Poles” and proceeded to fall apart. Did Rockwell paint anything better?
It’s very hard to say, because his best pictures all hit you like adolescent crushes. They are so damned cute, they snatch any sentiment you may be holding in reserve for nearby competitors and hog it all for themselves.
(That, incidentally, is what makes a visit to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge so disconcerting. It’s one ridiculous crush after another; you start to feel ashamed.)
You can find “The Young Lady With the Shiner” in the recently overhauled galleries for postwar and contemporary art at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, where it has long been a popular favorite.
Am I going to try to tell you it’s not cheesy? No. It is — transparently — cheesy in the extreme. But just imagine if you had painted it yourself: How could you not feel — just like the picture’s winsome subject — immensely pleased with your work?
The composition — rectangles stacked within rectangles — is as sturdy and symmetrical as a good piece of carpentry. But detail after detail reaches out of the picture to tickle you under the chin.
The notice board at top left, for instance, is masterly. Replete with dangling key, a child’s drawing marked with a gold star, a typed letter, and a certificate, it’s a little painting within a painting — and Rockwell’s quiet nod, perhaps, to the populist late-19th-century trompe l’oeil painting of John F. Peto and William Harnett.
Note the marvelous orchestration of space, too — the way the filing cabinet with the open drawer on the right establishes foreground space, which is connected by deep perspective lines that run right into the principal’s office. The sliver we see of the office is itself brightly backlit, so that we imagine the sun shining outside. There is, in other words, a lot of space in this picture.
Some things in the picture shine (the floor, the bench, her lips, the drawer handle, the doorknob); others are matte. The coloring is brilliant — that strange key of cool green that chimes with the floor, the notice board, and the dress of the principal’s assistant.
Both she and our young heroine have orange hair — and that color, enhanced by the red in the girl’s plaid skirt, sets off her livid purple shiner to magnificent effect. (Up close, the bruise is outrageously iridescent).
Do we like this girl? With her haystack hair, her socks unwound, her irrepressible grin, she is absolutely a handful.
But yes, of course, we do. We love her. She is brilliant. No wonder the principal looks anxious as he mentally rehearses his speech to her. She’s heard it all before.Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.