Curators are more like detectives than one might expect.
At least, that’s what Dennis Nolan has found. The art professor curated the “Keepers of the Flame: Parrish, Wyeth, Rockwell, and the Narrative Tradition,” which opens at the Norman Rockwell Museum on Saturday.
“A lot of history is about influences. I started thinking not just about influences but about [the question of] ‘who taught who?’” Nolan said.
Over the last few years, he’s pieced together a family tree of sorts of mentors and mentees, focusing on N.C. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish and, of course, Norman Rockwell.
“It goes back as far as we can trace it and, likely, farther than we can trace it,” Nolan said, “It goes back to the Renaissance. The only reason that I stopped there is that there are no written records past that.”
These intricate, sepia-toned “teacher trees” Nolan illustrated for the exhibition strikingly reveal just how interconnected each of the major artists is from the 1400s to today. The illustrations resemble ancestry trees, but instead of showing a genealogical connection, they reveal connections of instruction, with portraits of nearly 70 artists branching off of one another.
It’s a unique look at the narrative illustration, especially when it is backed up visually by works like Rockwell’s masterpiece “Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” or Parrish’s vibrant and richly hued “Sinbad Plots Against the Giant.”
Historically speaking, the “Flame” starts out with “Triptych of Madonna and Child with Saints,” made in 1440 by Neri Di Bicci. It’s an impressive work, not just because of its age, but because of its lineage. Bicci’s grandfather was Lorenzo Di Bicci, perhaps the most influential Italian painter of the latter half of the 14th century. The Di Bicci family passed down their teaching from generation to generation and, as Nolan finds, Neri influenced others down the line.
Even from a work that was created hundreds of years before the Golden Age of Illustration in American, one can pick up on certain elements that appear in works by Parrish, Wyeth and Rockwell
“We chose those three because they were just so strong and different from each other,” Nolan said. Parrish, with his brilliant hues and neo-classical style, focused on advertising, while Wyeth was known for his literature illustrations and Rockwell focused on magazines.
Though they each had slightly different concentrations, they were connected in interesting ways.
Parrish attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which was founded in 1805 and is the oldest art school in the country. Wyeth was taught by Howard Pyle, an artist who went to the Pennsylvania Academy.
Of the 70-plus artists in the exhibition, not all were connected quite as directly, some were more tangentially connected. Though the “teacher trees” help to illustrate just how much even one teacher/artist could impact another.
“I found that it wasn’t that 100 people had 100 [different] lines going back. After about three generations, 100 people went back to the same one or two lines,” Nolan said, “What surprised me was how few painters it took to get all the way back. That line was pretty direct.”
This lineage will also be represented in a digital interactive platform using Nolan's teacher trees and allowing visitors to digitally see how artists like Rockwell relate to say, Leonardo Da Vinci.
“Nearly every picture-making European or American painter can trace their line right back to Botticelli,” Nolan said.
Nolan, who is a professor in the Masters in Fine Arts program in Illustration at the University of Hartford, said that there are thousands of these “Keepers of the Flame,” today. They’re not limited to artists but to teachers who are still teaching the traditional drawing principles.
“It’s anyone who is out there telling stories with their works,” Nolan said.
Humans are always looking for stories, hoping to weave together the events in our lives in a storyline that seems linear or makes sense.
Artists have been reflecting that inclination for hundreds of years through narrative realism. It’s an inclination and an incredible skill that, through instruction and inspiration, will be carried on for years to come.
Nolan said it has amazed him to see that the tradition hasn’t broken, despite years of war and mayhem.
As is evidenced by Maxfield Parrish’s whimsical “The Lantern Bearers,” or in N.C. Wyeth’s piercing “In the Crystal Depths,” artists continue to feed the narrative flame.
The exhibition, “Keepers of the Flame,” opens on June 9 at the Norman Rockwell Museum. It will be up through October 28. For more information visit nrm.org.