Sunday, December 6, 2009

Rockwell’s Earliest Reference Photo

There has been a great deal of interest in the recent exhibition and book “Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera,” which explores Rockwell’s use of reference photography. NPR radio story here.

Author and curator Ron Schick points out that “his first extensive use of photography came with a 1935 commission to illustrate a new edition of Tom Sawyer.”

But until now the earliest known surviving photographic evidence doesn’t go back much before 1939, when Rockwell moved to Arlington, Vermont, Mr. Schick told me in a phone conversation. The bulk of the earlier documentary records and photos were presumably lost in the 1943 Arlington studio fire.

A newspaper article has just surfaced which reveals what appears to be the earliest known reference photo commissioned by Rockwell. The painting (an alternate version from the one published in the Tom Sawyer edition) shows Huck Finn presenting the dead cat to Tom Sawyer. The photograph was taken by Richard Wyrley Birch, a photographer who has not yet been mentioned in any of the books on Rockwell’s process.

In the 1974 article, Mr. Birch recounts working for Rockwell as photographer, model, and model scout.

According to Birch, when Rockwell was living in New Rochelle he was “having trouble finding a photographer.” Learning that Birch could handle a camera, the artist commissioned him to help on the Tom Sawyer project. Mr. Birch claims that “almost all his art work from the beginning has been done from photographs.”

When Birch delivered the reference shots, made with the benefit of reflectors and lit like a movie shot, “Rockwell flipped. He’d had no pictures like this before. The detail was beautiful. I was his man from then on.”

Mr. Birch worked with Rockwell for about six years photographing “everything from beautiful young girls and children to aging and wrinkled men and women and from chickens and horses to cats and dogs,” until Rockwell moved to Vermont in 1939.

Although Rockwell agonized over his decision to use reference photography, he made no secret of it, at least not after 1940. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, he made extensive changes from the photo reference. But this new evidence pushes back the earliest surviving photo by almost five years, confirming the 1935 date. It also implies that Rockwell may have been using photos at least a few years before that time.

If anyone can put me in touch with Alison Wyrley Birch or Mr. Birch’s descendants, please send me an email (jgurneyart (at)
“Richard Wyrley Birch of Kent Once Was The Photographer Behind the Artist’s Brush” by Alison Wyrley Birch. Sunday Republican of Waterbury, CT. November 17, 1974


Daroo said...

In the preface to "Rockwell on Rockwell", He's quoted as saying he and Joe Lyendecker would get together and talk about how photo reference was "a prostitution of art" but then he says about 1937 he decided he was being an "old fogey" about using photos and began to use them in moderation". Apparently Lyendecker paid an unexpected visit to his studio, when Rockwell had his photo reference spread all over the floor but Rockwell says, "Joe was such a great gentleman he never let his eyes drop below the level of the table."

Elsewhere in the book he compares using photographs to a drug -- he become more and more dependent on their use.

So given his embarrassment at their use and the fact that he admits to using them in "moderation" by 1937 he probably experimented (at least recreationally ) with photography several years before that.

kev ferrara said...

Very interesting research Jim.

There is a photographic record of Rockwell painting Moonlight Buggy Ride (SEP 09/19/1925) directly from the model/set up, as well as what appears to be photo reference of the model/set up. So, that places his use of photo ref fairly early on. I think the actual question is when did he stop painting directly from the model at all, and did that effect his work?

(Have a great holiday!)


Victor said...

There was an NPR story that referred to the canvas on Rockwell's easel on the day that he died. Supposedly, Rockwell was trying to paint an illustration without the aid of photography for the first time in a long while. Does anyone have any further information or images related to that unfinished illustration?

Tom said...

Hi James
Playing devils advocate here. It is funy how you are critica l of Turner's work and hold Rockwell in such high regard. Turner created a whole drawing vocabulary from his own experiene of the real world. Almost anyone can start copying photgraphs with instance success. Changing expressions on a face is not very much of a drawing achievement. It has always struck me that reproductions of artist like Turner are terrible compared to the real painting while a Norman Rockwell always looks better reproduce then in reality. It might be interesting to post on what little information is actually in a photo in regards to reality.

Unknown said...

its a high end to me .

but following your blog is getting more on painting

thank you

i know the tom sawyer and the huck finn

and of course the rockfellar but not the rockwell

thank you for ur time

ChienYu = Teleah said...


kev ferrara said...

I checked the facts against my memory, and I think I jumped the gun. The photographs of Rockwell creating Moonlight Buggy Ride in 1925 were for an article in the Saturday Evening Post. There is no evidence that the shots were used as reference.


Daroo said...

Rockwell's first post cover was 1916, so by 1935 he had been working for about 20 years without photos. Before that Rockwell studied drawing under Bridgeman, who made him draw "hundreds of skulls in all positions" (which he thought was "overkill at the time" but was later thankful for because he always "felt" the skull underneath the expression.) That solidity can also be felt in his virtuosic treatment of hands, which lend almost as much emotional expression to the painting as the face.

"Changing expressions on a face is not very much of a drawing achievement." Tom -- I'm not sure I agree with this statement -- but mainly I think its beside the point when talking about Rockwell. He's about the overall concept and design -- his drawing serves those needs.

I tend to like his broader more caricatured work, which he started with a simple 2 dimensional thumbnail sketch with a strong clear silhouette. He then posed his models to match his initial concept the result was a broadly whimsical pose anchored in the verisimilitude of realistically rendered surface detail, that he gleaned from the photo reference. I agree, working from life yields much better color than working from photos, but Rockwell worked from B&W photos inventing the color to fit his design concept anyway.

Kev Ferrara -- But You make an interesting point -- the 1925 photo of him painting from the models COULD be used as reference itself. Did painting only from photos affect his work? I dunno? In general, my favorite post covers are from 1925 to early 1940s. Rockwell's paintings become much more photographic in appearance after that. Is that a result of his use of photo reference or the fact that illustrators began competing with photographers for cover space and tastes changed, so Rockwell changed? (This trend can be seen in Haddon Sundblom's work too, he went from using lushly painted brush strokes which described form with expressive energy to a more subdued but slick photographic handling.)

Michael Dooney said...

Years ago, when the Rockwell museum was on main St. in Stockbridge you had to go through as a guided tour and the guide gave the whole pitch full of anecdotes in great detail. There was an entire room with walls full of his reference pictures but we were quickly hurried through this..."Here are some pictures he took." as we were hussled along to the next room.
It's kind of ironic to me that for most non artists, the ability to make something "look just like a photograph" is the highest compliment, but using reference is "cheating". Funny!

James Gurney said...

Daroo, Victor, Michael, and everyone: thanks for all those interesting insights.

Kev, I was also wondering about that buggy photo, which I saw at the NR Museum. As you say, there's no evidence he was doing any more than taking a publicity photo of his process. But if I was Rockwell, I would have said to the photographer, "Hey, could you shoot another shot of the setup for me? I just want to check it against my charcoal drawing!"

There's a similar photo of Bouguereau painting from two girl models, which makes one wonder...

Tom, I'm a huge fan of Turner's early work, but my enthusiasm for him wears off a little as his career progresses. But that's a matter of taste, I suppose, and I respect those who have the reverse opinion.



Unknown said...

A brief and belated reply to Victor's query. The last canvas left on Rockwell's easel was "John Sergeant and Chief Konkapot." The speaker in the NPR piece got it wrong: there are indeed reference photos for the work.