Norman Rockwell’s Stories
This past weekend, I visited the “Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg” exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Turns out that these two filmmakers have been big fans — and collectors — of Rockwell for many years. I never knew that these guys have been inspired by this painter of Americana.
Earlier Americana, that is. Back when his paintings graced the cover of many Saturday Evening Posts and probably easily inspired chuckles and “Aw, shucks” from readers. These paintings reminded me of more of Frank Capra’s movies than Lucas or Spielberg. Easier for me to connect a line from Rockwell to It’s a Wonderful Life than to Star Wars.
I think it’s easy to chalk up Rockwell paintings as corny and clichéd. Yep, the guy painted a family crowded around a Thanksgiving dinner. He painted Santa and his elves. But then, some of his stuff can be timeless. Take Boy on High Dive, pictured on the right. Who hasn’t felt the worry before jumping off a high point — or into a big project, as Spielberg describes in the exhibit’s short movie. (The image of the painting is from the exhibit’s website. The copyright is from 1947, Saturday Evening Post.)
When I visited the exhibit, I was amazed at Rockwell’s technical and storytelling skills. He was fantastic at creating stories — I guess I was led there by the title of the exhibit. Rockwell arranged scenes with characters, settings, and props as if he were directing a movie. The end result is not a motion picture, but a still picture that seems to be a snapshot of an event in life. From this snapshot, you can imagine the rest of the story: the action that happened before the snapshot and after it.
Part of Rockwell’s skill is in the details. In The Jury, male jurors crowd around the lone female juror, who is presumpably not agreeing with them and is preventing a unanimous decision. The cigarette butts and crumpled paper scattered on the floor tell us that these jurors have been at it for a while. In Happy Birthday Miss Jones, the students’ handwriting of “Surprise” and “Happy Birthday Jonesy” are scrawled on the chalkboard. And we see the faded numbers of yesterday’s math lesson on the chalkboard. We also see the chalkboard eraser balanced on the class clown’s head. These details enrich the stories.
Rockwell was also skilled at visually pulling your eye to parts of the painting. Most of Window Washer is subdued, gray. Except for the redheaded secretary in a green business suit (à la Mad Men) and the face of the window washer who winks at her. These two brightly colored areas draw a strong diagonal line across the painting. In Shadow Artist, the old man’s head and shadow dog break out of the strong border that bounds the rest of the painting (the heads and bodies of the three kids in the audience), suggesting imagination breaking free.
As I try to learn more about drawing and painting, seeing Rockwell’s paintings felt like seeing a professor’s portfolio. A master of the visual style that he chose. He could’ve chosen to paint still life and New England landscapes — and they would’ve been beautifully detailed. Instead, he created stories with incredible skill of realistic faces and details and colors and arranging elements.