Saturday, April 20, 2013

How Rockwell turned a detractor into a defender

My friend David Starrett met Norman Rockwell a couple of times in Los Angeles in 1949 when Rockwell was artist-in-residence at the old Otis art school. David told me this story, which he witnessed.

In those days, a lot of the art teachers at Otis criticized Rockwell. One remarked, as he passed through the hallway, "The only way Rockwell can paint is from a photo." Rockwell happened to be working in a classroom and overheard the comment.

Later that day, Rockwell, a slender and modest man, approached the critic as a dachshund might approach a pit bull.

"You have an interesting face," he said. "May I paint your portrait? Why don't you come by tomorrow around noon?"

The critic agreed, and the next day Rockwell proceeded to paint a perfect likeness from observation, all the while regaling the man with amusing stories. Then he gave him the painting.

The painting went up in the man's office and it blew everyone away. Now Rockwell's toughest critic became his biggest champion. No one could say a single word against Rockwell without an argument from this guy.


Robert J. Simone said...

Rockwell's being able to paint like Rockwell is the whole key to this story. We should all strive for such supreme confidence which can only come from diligence and hard work. Thanks again, James.

Unknown said...

When I was in school an instructor told me Rockwell wasn't considered a painter, rather he was an "illustrator." I looked at her like she had been hallucinating. His humor, thoughtful expression, and exquisite work is something I hold in high regard despite her comments, and as you say, James, I understand the kind of determination, diligence and hard work it takes to create. Although I almost never watch TV, recently I flicked it on, and there was a woman on "Antiques Road Show" who had been a model for Rockwell as a child. Her father did many photos for him. Her stories and memories were marvelous, and his treatment of those he worked with was direct yet kindly. She said in the case of a painting she was having appraised that it was painted for a cereal box but was rejected by the company because it was "too pretty." They went with a painting of a scruffy kid instead. It seemed as I looked at his work growing up, that he made every moment, whether silly or poignant, into something beautiful that touched the heart. I still smile when I see his work. Thank you for posting that story.

Christopher Thornock said...

I guess what the critic didn't realize is that his early post covers were done working from live models. The whole life vs. photo thing is lame. Vermeer used a camera and we don't wring our hands.

David R. Darrow said...

In high school, in the early 1970s, my teacher in the course "Great Issues" loved to blather on about current news and his opinion which was slanted decidedly toward one way of seeing things.

One day, early in the semester, he asked us to introduce ourselves, and tell the class what we wanted to be. When it came my turn, I said I wanted to be an artist.

"What kind?" the teacher asked.

"Like Norman Rockwell..."

He immediately cut me off telling me "Norman Rockwell was not an artist, rather an Illustrator."

I don't remember another word spoken by that man for the remainder of the term, and it's a fact I cannot even remember his name.

I went on to Art School a few years later, and majored in Illustration. Rockwell passed away when I was in my 4th term at the Art School from which i eventually graduated.

I still want to be an artist like Norman Rockwell.

mp said...

Hmmm, I wonder if the woman K Dopita refers to was the same woman who was my art teacher in elementary school. She too had modeled for Rockwell and her father was a photographer. I re-discovered her again in life after seeing an article in The Smithsonian where her connection to Rockwell was mentioned in an article on him. Back in fifth grade, I had no idea.

What a great way to deal with a critic! Rockwell was a genius.

I too, heard nothing but criticism of Rockwell over the years from 'true artists.'

Anonymous said...

What a boss.

Kate said...

What a lovely story.

Although people often try and engage me, I try not to go near the 'real artist' vs. 'only an illustrator' and the 'by eye' vs. 'cheats with photos' debates.

They are as emotionally-charged as 'that must be good because it took you a long time' and 'that must be worth a lot, because look at all the detail'

Stephen James. said...

If I could choose one early 20th century painter to have a discussion with it would probably be Rockwell.

It is in my opinion one of the great disgraces of 20th century art criticism that he is not considered one of the great painters of the 20th century. Good luck finding this "mere illustrator" in the pages of any art history book.

Christoffer Gertz Bech said...

Interesting story on many levels. I guess it's pretty well known how Rockwell exclusively painted from life for quite a long time before he acknowledged that photos could be useful in some situations, but apparently this critic didn't know that.

But apart from that, Rockwell's work is so obviously not "photo-realistic". I would agree with this critic that using photos can be a problem if the result is is a painting that literally looks like a photo - in that case, I think it can be relevant to ask: What's the point. But Rockwell is clearly not that kind of painter. He is a storyteller who has the skills to render what he needs to tell the story, and his paintings - no matter how much or how little is done from photos or from life - are first and foremost the result of him telling a story with a single image.

Meera Rao said...

just a couple months ago a curator cut down Rockwell by dismissing his painting stokes and texture as not at all 'painterly' and dismissing a painting that was beautiful, full of humor & life! Apparently that painting was chosen to be in a show because 'the public' likes to see his paintings!

mp said...

To be very un-PC here, you'd have to be blind and deaf to not know there's been sneering Leftism at the heart of the art world for many years...and the indoctrination starts in your earliest art classes. It's no surprise that Rockwell's keen expression of traditional American values hasn't been lauded by the so-called art intelligentsia.

Unknown said...

I read a book on Rockwell awhile back and in it Rockwell relayed an anecdote about how much his mentor, JC Leyendecker, hated photo reference and insisted on using live models. Rockwell tried to follow this but eventually ended up using more photo reference due to time constraints. One day Leyendecker paid a visit to Rockwell's studio, which was at the time covered in photos he'd taken as reference. Rockwell was terribly embarrassed and thought he'd get a lecture, but Leyendecker (perhaps politely) didn't comment on it.

When you see the photos Rockwell took as reference, his paintings are obviously modeled very closely on them. But he put a ton of effort into the model photos, with costumes and poses (which was a pretty common technique of that era anyway), and he was so busy that I don't blame him for taking what shortcuts he could. By the time he was at the height of his career in the 40's and 50's he was painting 1-2 Saturday Evening Post covers a month, in oil, including all the big holiday covers. He also did a bunch of advertising illustrations.

I'm not personally a huge fan of Rockwell's style-- I think Leyendecker's paintings have a lot more life to them, and I like his brighter colors-- but you definitely can't deny that Rockwell was a master of his craft.

Judy P. said...

May I say that Rockwell's handling of his nemesis had a very skillful, zen martial arts approach to it. Also I noticed early on that painters with an illustration background, either in graphic arts or advertising, seemed to have the chops to move smoothly into fine art painting. They could deliver on their particular vision- that alone should humble the naysayers.

jeffkunze said...

This is really interesting reading the comments here after reading the article. Being an illustrator I always took it as a point of pride in a way that an illustrator is above an artist. I always contended that the great Renaissance "artists" were actually great illustrators since they were illustrating scenes from the bible after being contracted by the pope.

I think Rockwell's painting "connoisseur" sums this up nicely when Rockwell recreates a painting of Jackson Pollock so well that many thought it better than Pollock himself.

A few years ago the Akron Art Museum in Akron Ohio caused quite a stir when their first large gallery show was showcasing the work of Rockwell. The show seemed to be a success regardless of those complaining.

Unknown said...

From the Natural Way to Draw
EX.31 The Extended Gesture Study..
....Start with a gesture study on a large piece of manila paper, using a 4B pencil, and go on from that to delineate more carefully the forms and contours, including the outside contours. Having made a real contact with the gesture in the first few minutes, you can them afford to develop the drawing as to its other details such as the forms of the various parts.....
YOU MAY USE ANY AND ALL METHODS AT YOUR COMMAND TO ARRIVE AT THE CORRECT PROPORTIONS AND THE POSTURE, even to the extent of measuring how much higher one point is than another or the angles and distances that are created from point to point. In such measuring there is danger of making your drawing static so, after you have checked up the proportions, return again to the conviction of the gesture....
... From long practice we attain what we all strive for - that equilibrium, the proper balance, between the subjective and the objective impulse, between the conscious use of the model and the subconscious reaction. You are trying to weld those two impulses together. The proportion of each required to produce the most fruitful act for the individual may be different for different people and at different times in the life of one individual. Forms fo not have to be taken from the visible world - it is equally logical to borrow from the invisible world. On the other hand, it is not necessary self-consciously to ignore or exclude the forms of the visible world. Even a subjective study may bear a physical resemblance to the model. Jut as there is variety in all nature, there is variety in people. One may just paint abstractly and another not, but they make use if the same impulses and when they use them correctly a work of art can result.

The fact that DeKooning admired and collected Rockwell's work must have kept the critics awake at night. Aside from my rant, Simone said it best!

Elena Jardiniz said...

The "fine artist" vs "mere illustrator" thing is really all a marketing gimmick. You really want to horrify a budding "fine artist"? Gush about how much you like zir work. Lay it on thick. It horrifies them because to qualify as "really fine art" it must NOT appeal to any but the most rarified and refined tastes... remarkably like the garments made for the Emperor in the story of "The Emperor's New Clothes". Which is what I think of every time someone does the 'fine art manifesto' thing. Snort.

jeffkunze said...

It almost seems like there should be another category all together. You have illustrator, fine artist as you described Elena, and there is the type of artist that is more of a craftsman or artisan. The craftsman or artisan category I think of when I see the work of someone like Steve Huston. It's not really illustration and it's not really the type of fine artist that is trying to appeal to a very small hoity-toity group. It's someone trying to truly master a medium and craft.

Just a thought.