Norman Rockwell’s American Dream: The Auteur Theory
After surveying more than 18,000 black-and-white photographs that Norman Rockwell staged as studies for his iconic paintings, author Ron Schick has developed a belief that Rockwell was the illustrator as auteur. “He worked with models the way a film director works with his actors,” says Schick, curator of the new exhibit Norman Rockwell: Behind The Camera (opening on November 7 at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge) and the book of the same name. “You have to think of him in the cultural context. The parallel artist is Frank Capra,” says Schick, referring to the director of all-American classics such as You Can’t Take It With You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. (Not so coincidentally, two of the titans of modern moviemaking—Steven Spielberg and George Lucas—are major collectors of Norman Rockwell paintings and are loaning work for an exhibit called Telling Stories that will open in 2010 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC.)
In Schick’s view, Rockwell’s paintings can be seen as movie stills that capture a split-second of a complex narrative. “Rockwell was a storyteller and his paintings are very cinematic—you can imagine what happened in the moments before and after the paintings,” he says. “People say that Norman Rockwell paintings leave nothing to the imagination, and I completely disagree. I think there is a lot left for us to wonder about.”
Now, thanks to Schick, we don’t have to wonder about how Rockwell dreamed up with all those raised eyebrows, cockeyed glances and sideways grins. As Schick explained to Rural Intelligence, Rockwell stopped painting live, professional models in 1930, and he started photographing friends and neighbors instead. He had to coax the often stoic New Englanders in Arlington, VT (where he lived from 1939 - 1953) and Stockbridge, MA (where he lived from 1953 until his death in 1978) to uninhibitedly express all sorts of emotions—surprise, confusion, fear, delight, frustration, suspicion, faith. Though he always had a clear idea of the story he wanted to tell, the models would invariably provide spontaneous reactions that he would use. “You could never get a model to hold a spontaneous expression on his face for three days in a studio!” says Schick, whose expertise is archival photography and who wrote The View from Space: American Astronaut Photography 1962-1972, with his wife, Julia Van Haaften. As David Kamp wrote in the November Vanity Fair, “The complexity of Rockwell’s process belies the ‘simplicity’ often ascribed to his finished products.”
According to Schick, there is probably only one Norman Rockwell photograph that was taken without the artist’s intention of every turning it into a painting. It was Closing A Summer Cottage, Quogue, New York (above), a 1957 Kodak Colorama that hung in New York’s Grand Central Terminal; it featured a paneled station wagon (that seems to reference his famous 1947 diptych Coming and Going) outside the type of simple, shingled beach cottage that is no longer built in the Hamptons and that middle class families can no longer afford. A six-foot long version of that photograph will be hanging at the entrance to the exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum (which will move to the Brooklyn Museum in February 2011). “I love that photograph,” says Schick. “It looks like the characters stepped out of one of his paintings.”
Norman Rockwell: Behind The Camera
Norman Rockwell Museum
November 7 - May 31, 2010
Opening: November 7, 5:30 - 7:30 p.m.
Commentary by Ron Schick at 5:45 p.m., followed by a reception with cash bar and book-signing of Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera (Little, Brown and Company, 2009). Free for Museum members; $15 non-members
Photo credits from top to bottom: Reference photos for Norman Rockwell’s Soda Jerk, 1953. Photos by Gene Pelham. Photo montage created by Ron Schick. Licensed by Norman Rockwell Licensing, Niles, IL. From the permanent collection of Norman Rockwell Museum.
Soda Jerk, Norman Rockwell, 1953. Oil on canvas, 36” x 34”. Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, August 22, 1953. ©1953 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN. Collection of Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio. Bequest of J. Willard Loos.
Reference photo for Norman Rockwell’s Marriage Counselor, 1963. Photo by Bill Scovill. Licensed by Norman Rockwell Licensing, Niles, IL. From the permanent collection of Norman Rockwell Museum.
Marriage Counselor, Norman Rockwell, 1963. Oil on canvas, 31 1/4” x 38 1/4” Intended for The Saturday Evening Post, unpublished. Licensed by Norman Rockwell Licensing, Niles, IL. From the permanent collection of Norman Rockwell Museum.
Closing a Summer Cottage, Quogue, New York, a 1957 Norman Rockwell art-directed Colorama by Ralph Amdursky and Charles Baker. © 2009 Kodak, courtesy of George Eastman House.