One snowy November afternoon I happened to be in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and I knocked on the studio door of Norman Rockwell. He took his time coming and when he did he was in his smock with a pipe in one hand and a brush in the other. I handed him a small gift I had brought with me — one of those pens with a brush at the end. At that time you could get them only in Japan — where I had just been. “I can use this,” he said as he tried it out on a small desk by the door. I told him I was an admirer from Canada and he said he had a lot of friends in Canada. His easel held a mostly-finished portrait of Richard Nixon. As I was well and truly into his studio, he started stuffing 8″ x 10″ glossies into a drawer. When I asked some technical questions, he stopped stuffing. In that short visit I learned a lot about his process — stuff I was dying to ask that wasn’t in the books.
We talked for some time and he didn’t offer me a drink. We got around to Maxfield Parrish (the subject of my last letter) and I detected a bit of discomfort. He told me that he had learned a lot from Parrish and that in some ways his career had taken off from his. I loved the Rockwell “surfaces,” and I told him so — and he became more at ease.
In some ways there are parallels between Parrish and Rockwell — the rectilinear design, the profiles, the joy of caricature. Where Parrish took the effects of light and atmosphere to an extreme, Rockwell concentrated on character. Not in all works, of course; in some, reality itself is enough. Rockwell grew into his job as a Saturday Evening Post cover illustrator. His work was amateur and laboured at first, but he soon developed confidence and a feeling for quality. Like a lot of us, he tightened up as he became older. To cruise his originals for the lovely brushwork is my idea of a great way to spend a day. Since that brief time with Rockwell, I’ve attended several of his retrospectives. The crowded rooms were full of smiles. When all is said and done, there’s something to be said for smiles. His humanity, his archetypical faces — now so much interwoven with the fabric of America — will be around for a long time to come. That snowy afternoon in Stockbridge, I told him that — and then he told me he had to get back to work.
PS: “I unconsciously decided that, even if it wasn’t an ideal world, it should be. So I painted only the ideal aspects of it — pictures in which there are no drunken slatterns or self-centered mothers. Only foxy grandpas who played baseball with the kids and boys who fished from logs and got up circuses in the backyard.” (Norman Rockwell)
Esoterica: Rockwell’s references for the Nixon painting were 8″ x 10″ black and white glossies. One of them was squared off. It appeared he had followed it pretty closely. There were traces of the grid on the painting. The drawing had been done with a Conte pencil — several shades were on the tabouret beside his easel. Rockwell would have believed in Sir William Orpen‘s dictum, “A painting well drawn is always well enough painted.”
“The Four Freedoms” Paintings by Norman Rockwell (1894 – 1978)
Paintings by Norman Rockwell (1894 – 1978)
Breaking Home Ties: The surface may not have held up too well, but the idea has. Cracking and discoloration due to too early varnish. Sentimental, yes, but so much is told here.
Pipe and Bowl Sign Painter: A mid career masterpiece. Complex negative areas hold the delight of brushwork on a guy that does brushwork for a living. Character, caricature, competence.
And Daniel Boone Comes to Life: Not just an illustration but a magical dream. Parrish-like and burnout in high key fantasy where shadows lighten up and convince of brilliant light.
A Pilgrim’s Progress: An early rendering, contrived and well worked over as he dug to find his style. Parrish-like cuteness but also influenced by another: J. C. Leyendecker.
Life imitates art
by Odette Nicholson, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
The reason I don’t like Norman Rockwell is that his pictures express old-fashioned attitudes, no ‘self-centered mothers’ more than makes my point. Though I do very well by my children, the artist part of me exists and yes, she is a bit self-centered! Unreasonable candified expectations generated by men like Mr. Rockwell and others through the history of art, beginning with the first depictions of the placid mother Madonna, do us all harm. Life does imitate art after all!
‘Stories’ not inconsequential
by Heidi E. Hehn, Whitehorse, YT, Canada
You have chosen two of my favourite artists of all time. Where I live people dismissively label these two artists only “illustrators” as they do me. Their techniques far surpass many of the so-called artists I have known, both dead and alive. And their compositions have inspired me to paint what I want — stories. I am no wielder of a pen but the brandisher of a brush. In reality, is not all painting the painting of a story and is not all art an illustration – an illustration of the story inside the artist? But it seems to me that art is often defined by the art elite as something that the public dislikes. If the people like it — it is not art but illustration. Rockwell and Parrish and Pyle and all those who chose to express in terms of storytelling are all confined to the back bin as inconsequential.
(RG note) Thanks, Heidi. In illustration, technique is the servant of story. All reference — models, costumes, furniture, props, photos, etc. are put to work toward that end. Rockwell had in his studio a large “morgue” where he kept pictures of things that might be needed. If he were alive today he would google stuff and press “images.” He also employed a photographer to help him with his “set ups.” Neighbors and friends were often dressed up and pressed into service.
‘Rockwell not a real artist’
by Kathleen Knight, Teasdale, UT, USA
I took an introductory studio art class as a freshman in college with high hopes of excelling and doing more art. It went fine until we were assigned to create a scrapbook of various types of art, taken from magazines, and I chose a Rockwell Post cover as the example of drawing. The professor told me Rockwell was not a real artist and gave me a C+ for the assignment. This was a major discouragement, not unrelated to my majoring in sociology, and I didn’t take myself seriously in art until many decades later. So it was a great pleasure to read that Rockwell is now held in high regard in many art programs!
Good heart medicine
by Redenta Soprano, Orlando, FL, USA
There is something to be said for inspirational works of art. In contrast to what the avant garde genre of the recent past has espoused, I believe if an artist can create something truly beautiful, that addresses and uplifts the human spirit (not necessarily sweet and schmaltzy, though that perception is in the eye of the beholder), they can bring a little light into this world. There is quite a bit of bad news around, so to me, a bit of eye candy can be good heart medicine. Why not?
Rockwell’s vulnerabilities exposed
by Curtis Wilson Cost, Kula, HI, USA
Okay, normally I enjoy your writings. This one I found offensive. You invaded Rockwell’s process, uninvited. You got in his door with a trinket and today you expose his vulnerabilities to a wide audience? (Stuffing 8″ x 10″ glossies into a drawer) How would you like someone to do that to you? You better call before coming to my studio, Robert. I won’t be letting you in.
Knocking on doors
by James Kelly, Ireland
I’m lucky to live here in Ireland quite near Arthur Maderson. It’s one of my goals this summer to get to speak to him by just ‘knocking on his studio door.’ I was advised that this is the best approach as he would more than likely decline a more formal approach. I hope I’m as lucky as you were with Rockwell. I really love Maderson’s work. I love your letters and I love reading the feedback from other artists. Your letter is ‘my art community.’
by Jerry Snyder, Reading, Pennsylvania, USA
I’m assuming you’ve seen the DVD Parrish Blue — 27 minutes in the home of Maxfield Parrish starring Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish JR. Why doncha come down and see my studio sometime?
The discomfort of reference
by Len Sodenkamp, Boise, ID, USA
I find it profoundly humbling to hear of your encounter with Rockwell. As I read your words I felt the connection with him. When he began stuffing photos out of eyeshot. How many times I have felt uncomfortable with a visitor in my studio looking over my photographic scrap and reference material. Especially other artists. This need to push aside the notion that we even need such things as photographic visuals to paint our works. How embarrassed we might be to need a picture of a rose to help us remember its soft velvet petals. The truth is, even the blind poet needs to feel the wind on his face to express it in so many words.
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA
It may be of interest to note that both Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell studied with Howard Pyle in the Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania, as did N.C. Wyeth, Harvey Dunn and Frank Schoonover and a few other very fine illustrators of the period. Howard Pyle is considered the father of American illustration. The Brandywine River Museum, in Chadds Ford, PA, is a worthwhile destination for anyone interested in these artists or this period.
Limited palette painters
by Douglas H. Dartnell, Bow, NH, USA
I am enjoying your letters, especially about artists who used only a few colors, such as Anders Zorn and Maxfield Parrish. I had the opportunity to see first hand some of Zorn’s portraits and his other paintings on my travels through Sweden and Finland last summer. I was blown away by Zorn’s handling of color and its richness, especially in his portraits. I have always thought the Impressionists had the better method of presentation of various subjects with their bright colors and color variety, which were painted directly, either en plein air or in their studios. After seeing Zorn’s works I could be easily swayed to another conclusion! I would be interested in hearing from other artists who use limited palettes.
‘Feeling of failure’ in artists
by Mary Madsen, Henderson, NV, USA
One of the things I find most fascinating about Rockwell is that he, like so many outstanding artists in so many mediums, considered himself a failure. He left this world with a feeling of frustration and defeat because he wanted to be a fine art painter (whatever that means) and didn’t realize what a wealth of images he created. Faulkner called himself a failed poet, and at Thoreau‘s funeral Emerson remarked that it was such a shame the poor boy had never lived up to his potential. I hope I leave this world frustrated and having failed to fulfill my potential in the same way these giants did.
Art must deal with sterner stuff
by Brett Busang, Washington DC, USA
I do appreciate your efforts to put a nice spin on things, but I’m afraid this last bit is just a “bit” too much. Siding with the likes of Norman Rockwell — who, by the way, did not necessarily “tighten up” as he got older — is to plant the American flag squarely in your Canadian pup-tent and start singing a nice, sentimental song about human brotherhood. You can obviously write anything you care to, but to see Rockwell as anything other than a talented fabulist is to be hopelessly caught in a sentimental swoon for something that never existed. Toward the end of his career, Rockwell began to realize the dark side of the myth he’d created and showed — if you’ll remember — the shadows of his good old boys flung across a horrifying moonscape. In a moment, they would reach, and engulf, a black man cowering for support beside a white man who was similarly doomed. I notice that you always fail to print the “negative” things I say about the content of your sermons. Remember, however, what an excellent Romantic poet said about the artist’s sense as a “negative capability.” This means that however awful the source of an artist’s inspiration, what explains or illuminates this source may ultimately transcend it. King Lear was a prideful old coot who ruined lives; Macbeth an ambitious murderer; Caesar’s killers mere politicians who wanted Rome to themselves. Rockwell rarely thought about such things. The source of his livelihood was an America that was in denial about its racism, its labor policies, its ignorance of foreign militarism, and its brutal disregard for an environment that seemed to provide an endless abundance. The real story of America was told by its more fearless interpreters. (It’s unlikely that you’ll ever address them — though I would encourage it.) Rockwell’s artistic significance is tantamount to that of a genial neighborhood storyteller whom everybody knows is embellishing shamelessly. They all listen to him anyway because they want to believe what he’s saying.
I guess I may have to do my own newsletter. It’s good to be likeable, but art has to deal with sterner stuff; people who have little else to do but grimace at one another don’t cut it.
(RG note) Somehow I just couldn’t resist asking Andrew to put this one in here.
Artists need the rewards of life
by Cherie Hanson, Kelowna, BC, Canada
What appalls me is that creative people who are acting out their creativity feel that they cannot find economic power and happiness. They pay for the privilege of being who they are with economic and relationship deprivation. We don’t exact this price for success in other fields. It stems from the Protestant ethic, from the early history of North American culture. Artists need to get over it. Yes, we are exploring our soul’s work. So are other people in other jobs. We need to claim the power of our vision and stop precluding ourselves from the rewards of this life. We are not, after all, medieval, expecting our reward in the afterlife and refusing to recognize or be recognized for the excellence of our work. It is a journey that starts one artist at a time. Allowing self to claim power, helping all others around us to see the beauty of their work, encouraging and networking are the ways that we can restructure the myth.
Of glue and rabbits
by Jack Richardson, Onancock, VA, USA
My first year painting teacher, William Woodward, at Corcoran School of Art in Washington DC, taught us students the use of “rabbit skin glue” for preparing canvas to isolate the support. For a number of years, about 40, I have used it in preparation of cotton and linen and also for paper. One benefit of use on paper, which is sized to start with, is that it leaves the color and texture much the same as before it is applied, (no glossy slick surface). I have papers which I sized (glued) 20 years ago and they still have the same wonderful tactual feel with no discoloration as before they were sized. I have also heard of, but never tried, a product called PVA, polyvinyl acetate, which is used for sizing and I would hope it has the same qualities as the rabbit skin glue. (Poor rabbits) Older methods still have their usefulness.
The Way Things Used To Be
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
That includes David Kassan of Brooklyn, New York who wrote, “When in New York you should visit the Dahesh Museum of Art illustration show.”
And also Leni Friedland of Mt. Sinai, New York who wrote, “In Stockbridge this past summer I bought an original copy of a Post magazine in mint condition with a Rockwell cover with my exact birthday date. It is now framed and hanging in my living room.”