Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Living in Norman Rockwell's world December 2014 Newsletter

When I was a child, I was fascinated with two artists: Norman Rockwell and Walt Disney. Interestingly, the art community has never held them in high regard. On the Disney side, my love came the day my hat-designer aunt handed me a book on creating cartoons. I was nine years old and learned that I could occupy myself for hours just by putting pencil to paper. On the Rockwell side, I was intrigued not only by the mastery of the artist’s hand, but by the stories each painting told. 

I remember pouring over Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post pictures. For years, critics have complained about him because of his silly, syrupy presentation of an America that never was. As a child I couldn’t care less. What mattered to me was his visual characters, especially the kids and the story being told without a single, written word. I still remember one of my favorites, although it was created when I was only a toddler, called The Girl with a Black Eye, 1954.

You see, I was a tom-boy and got into trouble when I was ten or so. My brothers needed a protector, at least I thought so. I wasn't going to let anyone mess around with them without answering to me first. So of course, I identified with this girl, sitting outside the principal’s office. I also remember those wooden benches, the green filing cabinet, the hairstyle and dress of the school adults and especially the clothes the girl is wearing. It spoke to me, and that was Norman Rockwell’s magic. He may never be regarded as a fine artist (although today he is being appreciated more), but for me and many others, he was a GREAT artist. That’s why I’ve chosen Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) as my first in a series of articles on American artists.

Born at the tail end of the 19th century in 1894, Rockwell entered our world as the second Rockwell son “in a back bedroom of a shabby brownstone,” on New York’s Upper West Side. A major depression, called the Panic of 1893, was underway, and the city was hit hard (by 1900, two-thirds of the city’s population would be living in tenements, or 2.3 million people). While his father, Waring, held a job at a textile company, times weren’t great for this family of four. For several years they moved, going from one cramped apartment to the next.  The city would always cause Rockwell some angst as he witnessed a lot of unpleasantries as a youngster. The family would vacation in Vermont, where he and his brother, Jarvis, would enjoy open countryside. He really loved it as he remarked in his memoir, 

“In the city we kids delighted to go up on the roof of our apartment house and spit down on the passers-by in the street below. But we never did things like that in the country. The clean air, the green fields, the thousand and one things to do … got somehow into us and changed our personalities as much as the sun changed the color of our skins.

“Maybe as I grew up and found that the world wasn’t the perfectly pleasant place I had thought it to be I unconsciously decided that, even if it wasn’t an ideal world, it should be and so painted only the ideal aspects of it—pictures in which there were no drunken slatterns or self-centered mothers, in which, on the contrary, there were only Foxy Grandpas who played baseball with the kids and boys [who] fished from logs and got up circuses in the back yard.… The summers I spent in the country as a child became part of this idealized view of life. Those summers seemed blissful, sort of a happy dream. But I wasn’t a country boy, I didn’t really live that kind of life. Except later on in my paintings.”

By the time he was 12, the family finally moved from the city to the suburb of Mamaroneck, NY. Things began to change. Early on, he had an artistic bent, even drawing characters and events from memory. So it’s not surprising that within one year of moving, he would decide to become an illustrator. He quit school and studied full time at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League in NYC. 

In 1911, at seventeen, he illustrated his first children’s book: Tell Me Why Stories. These illustrations led to other opportunities including the official Boy Scout magazine, Boy’s Life. For five years he drew exclusively kids. The viewpoint was from their perspective: trials of trying to grow up in a grown-up world. He did remarkably well—so much so that by the time he was 18, he was named art director for Boy’s Life. His career was off sailing. He states in his book The Norman Rockwell Album, that from 1912 to 1915, “I was up to my neck in illustrations for young people’s magazines. Besides, Boy’s Life, he also published in several other magazines.

But his biggest break of all came when the Saturday Evening Post accepted one of his cover illustrations. He left his salaried job at Boy’s Life (though maintaining a working relationship for 67 years) and began his 47-year tenure with the Post.

Rockwell was a prolific illustrator. In his lifetime he created over 4,000 original pieces, 322 covers to the Post and 200 covers for others. In his spare time, he was also commissioned to do portraits of the very famous, advertisements, calendars and other projects. He married three times (all teachers), had three boys, worked from sun up to sun down everyday and according to his son, Peter, never took vacations. He was what we call a workaholic. 

To give you an example, Rockwell explained in the book, How I Make a Picture, published in 1949, how complicated his working method was:

  • Brainstorm: sometimes would take days, while he locked himself alone in his room
  • Rough pencil sketches: working out all the kinks
  • Hire the models: he had to have the perfect person for the “part”
  • Secure the costumes and props
  • Explain to the models how to pose, even playing the part himself to demonstrate
  • Direct the photographer when, where, how and what to shoot
  • Create a full detailed sketch (from photograph[s])
  • Develop a color sketch
  • Create the final painting

Nothing was ever left to chance. He had it all laid out in his sketch and then moved forward to find the right models, costumes and props—even shipping in what he couldn’t find in his fully-loaded closet.

Rockwell preferred to use ordinary people:  neighbors, townspeople, even his sons over professional models. He talks about one boy, probably Billy Payne, who he used in his early years. The boy just couldn’t sit still, so Rockwell paid him 25 cents for every half hour he stopped squirming. I can certainly understand the difficulty. I had a hard time sitting still as a youngster (still do). He also had difficulty with people keeping the same facial expression. I don’t think I could hold a surprised look for too long either. It was about this time that he decided to use photography as a tool. The camera could capture that perfect moment.

Rockwell’s elaborate setups are legendary. In the book, Norman Rockwell Behind the Camera, the author Ron Schick shares Norman’s fascinating ability at staging and direction. For instance, to simulate walking, he’d put books under the models’ shoes or tape up clothing to give the impression of a windblown affect.

Not all of Norman’s paintings were set up in one fell swoop. He would stage one scene or a part of one scene and then use another to fill in the background or miscellaneous props. Saying Grace (below), one of his most popular, was originally planned for Manhattan overlooking Times Square, but instead he moved the “concept” to a train station. The models were photographed separately in the studio, seated at tables and chairs from the Horn & Hardart Automat (a long-lost cafeteria where you would buy your food through coin-operated boxes). The background, a railroad yard, was photographed separately. By the way, the elderly model didn’t live to see herself on the Post cover.

At this point I must admit that I was sorely disappointed when I found out that Rockwell used photographs. I had always wondered how he created such life-like characters. He was a wizard to me. But as I've read more and more about his methods and his commitment to authenticity, I've come to admire his style. His attention to detail and his craft are brilliant and most definitely inspirational.

In the end though, Norman Rockwell was a storyteller, sharing a world with us that he wanted, he visualized (true or not). Even in pictures where things go on that some of us never experience, we can still get the message. For example, in his series: Four Freedoms*, Rockwell used a Thanksgiving dinner to describe, Freedom from Want

I have never experienced this type of Thanksgiving scene in my life—even as an adult. Nor did Rockwell. His family lived in boarding houses after they moved to Mamaroneck, because his hypochondriac mother lost interest in keeping house. So as you can see in this picture, this was the life, the dinner he hoped for. And even though I haven’t experienced this in my lifetime, the painting still brings me joy. For the same reason, I don’t have to be in the midst of mountains to enjoy an Ansel Adam’s photograph. 

Rockwell was clearly a talented director as well. He was able to come up with the visual idea, illustrate the story and then execute it by directing the models, the scenery and the photographers (he worked with several over the years). Then after all that, he painted the idea!

Here are some examples of his setups and resulting paintings. 

The Art Critic
Rockwell would rework and rework until he was happy, well sort of. One example is The Art Critic, 1955. He talked about how he sketched the gal in the painting at least 20 times and asked everyone who came in to visit for suggestions. The Art Critic is one of Rockwell’s funniest painting, but obviously one that took far more time than anyone could imagine. Below notice all the attempts he has stacked against the wall. 

After his second wife died at the early age of 51, Rockwell, married again a couple of years later. The third Mrs. Rockwell was a retired teacher as well as a liberal and social activist. She encouraged him to leave the Post because they did not want people of color to be seen on their magazine covers as anything but servants. He moved over to Look, a competitor that had more of a political bent. Here is where Rockwell told the national secret of racism.

The Problem We All Live With,1964
In November of 1960, six -year old Ruby Bridges, was escorted by four U.S. Marshals to William Frantz Elementary School, an all-white school in New Orleans.  

Rockwell cropped this painting in such a way that all the emphasis is on Ruby. Dressed in white with supplies in hand, she demonstrates her bravery. She was the only black child to enter this school by court-ordered desegregation.  The escort was a result of threats she received. Rockwell does a great job of creating tension on canvas with the graffiti  and tomato splattered on the wall.

Former United States Deputy Marshal Charles Burks later recalled, "She showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn't whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier, and we're all very very proud of her.” 

One more note on the painting: Notice above the boards used by the models to replicate walking. You can also tell how the artist took a little bit from each gal to create his final Ruby.

Triple Self-Portrait, 1960 To reiterate the point that Rockwell wanted us to see what he wanted to see, notice the image in the mirror in Triple Self-Portrait, 1960, doesn’t necessarily translate  over to the painting. Instead we’re viewing his idealized self.

With all the research and wonderful background material I’ve collected on Rockwell’s paintings, I could go on forever. He is a thoroughly fascinating artist. But for now I must end. If you want to learn more, you may try the websites and/or books listed below: 


The Norman Rockwell Album by Norman Rockwell

What’s ahead for 2015!
Weekly Classes at Glastonbury Studios
Drawing • Sketching • Acrylic Painting.

Workshops at Glastonbury Studios
Watercolor I & II • Beginning Acrylics

Workshops at Portland Community College
Basic Drawing • Drawing Cats • Travel Sketching • Drawing Flowers

2015 Sketch’n on the Go™Workshop 
Mediterranean Sketching Workshop
7-Night France, Italy & Malta Cruise
April 26 to May 3, 2015
See trip blog for details.

Happy Holidays and Best wishes for 2015.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I've come to your blog by way of watching a Brusho video on Youtube. What a brilliant post on Norman Rockwell. I knew his name and that he was an artist and thanks to reading this post, I've found out a lot more about him.
    Thank you very much

    The West Country