More than 100 paintings by Roy Lichtenstein are currently on view in the exhibition Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective at the National Gallery of Art. A retrospective is an exhibition looking back at an artist's development over time, so this is an exciting opportunity for your family to explore the artist's work spanning four decades and learn about the ideas that inspired him. A major figure in American art, Lichtenstein helped define pop art.
In the 1950s and 1960s, young British and American artists made popular culture their subject matter. By incorporating logos, brand names, television and cartoon characters, and other consumer products into their work, these artists tested the boundaries between art and everyday life. Lichtenstein was one of the originators of this new pop movement. Fascinated by printed mass media-particularly newspaper advertising and cartoon or comic-book illustration-Lichtenstein developed a style characterized by bold lines, bright colors, dot patterns and sometimes, words.
Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997)
Born and raised in New York City, Lichtenstein began to draw and paint when he was a teenager, developed a passion for jazz and science and enjoyed visiting museums. He went to Ohio State University to study fine arts, but his studies were interrupted when he was drafted into the army and sent to Europe during World War II. After returning to Ohio State and completing his degrees, Lichtenstein worked as a graphic designer and taught art at several universities. In the 1960s he quickly emerged as a leading practitioner of pop art, and this success allowed him to dedicate himself full time to making art.
Lichtenstein's turning point came in 1961 when he painted Look Mickey, one of his earliest paintings to co-opt the conventions of comic strips. He said, "This was the first time I decided to make a painting really look like commercial art. The approach turned out to be so interesting that eventually it became impossible to do any other kind of painting."
Focus: Look Mickey
Look Mickey depicts the famous Disney cartoon characters Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck standing on a fishing pier. Grasping a fishing pole over above his head and peering down at the water, Donald thinks he has snared a fish. He exclaims, "LOOK MICKEY, I'VE HOOKED A BIG ONE!!" Mickey stifles a laugh and smiles in amusement as he realizes that Donald has in fact hooked his own coattail!
Look Mickey was inspired by an illustration in a Little Golden Book-Walt Disney's Donald Duck Lost and Found by Bob Grant and Bob Totten. Lichtenstein didn't copy the image-instead, he enlarged and simplified the picture, changing the color and composition and translating it into the style of a comic-book image.
Lichtenstein used the design conventions of the comic strip: its speech bubble, flat primary colors, and ink-dot patterns (such as those in Donald's eyes and Mickey's face, which mimic the commercial printing process). Although Lichtenstein imitated the look of the mechanical printing process, he carefully painted Look Mickey by hand. There are visible traces of his sketched pencil marks on the canvas. By making paintings look like blown-up comic strips, Lichtenstein surprised and shocked many viewers. Why? He made people think about how images are made and where they come from.
Visiting the Exhibition with Your Family
When visiting the exhibition, we recommend choosing a few works of art for a focused activity. Select one of Lichtenstein's paintings inspired by comic books and spend some time discussing it together as a family: How is it similar to a comic book illustration? How is the painting different from a comic book illustration? How might the artist have made this work of art? Then, encourage your children to imagine a story with this painting as the middle frame: What might have come before? What do you think happens next? They might even wish to create a short comic strip inspired by Lichtenstein's painting, imagining and drawing a few scenes that could come before and some that could come after his image.
Lichtenstein was also inspired by other artists, and he created a series of cartoon versions of their works, many are on view in Room 8 "Art History" of the exhibition. Compare these works by Lichtenstein with the works that inspired them. Think about: What is similar about the original work and Lichtenstein's version? What are the differences? How did Lichtenstein translate another artist's work into his own personal style?
Roy Lichtenstein, George Washington, 1962
Source: Gilbert Stuart, George Washington, c. 1821 (West Building Main Floor Gallery 60-A)
Roy Lichtenstein, Non-Objective I, 1964
Source: Piet Mondrian, Tableau No. IV, c. 1924/1925 (East Building Upper Level 404-C)
Roy Lichtenstein, Rouen Cathedral, 1969
Source: Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral series, 1894 (West Building Main Floor Gallery 87)
Roy Lichtenstein, Cubist Still Life, 1974
Source: Cubist works such as Pablo Picasso, Harlequin Musician, 1924 (East Building Upper Level 404-C)
Roy Lichtenstein, Brushstroke with Splatter, 1966
Source: Abstract Expressionist paintings such as Jackson Pollock, Number 1 (Lavender Mist), 1950 (East Building Concourse Level Gallery 029-H)
While at the museum, you can also check out Lichtenstein's House I, a large sculpture on view in the National Gallery's Sculpture Garden. This sculpture incorporates the hallmarks of Lichtenstein's style: heavy black outlines, primary colors, and crisp, simplified design. House I creates an optical illusion: it appears to project outward toward you, but it really recedes! Walk along the garden path and examine the sculpture from different angles to get the visual joke.
Nathalie Ryan is senior educator and manager of family and teen programs at the National Gallery of Art