Norman Rockwell: A Storyteller’s Treasure

Posted June 30, 2010 at 4:21pm

Norman Rockwell was an illustrator, but filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas think of him as a kindred spirit because they all have one thing in common: They’re storytellers.

That shared trait inspired Spielberg and Lucas to collect Rockwell pieces and has resulted in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s newest exhibit, “Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell From the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.” The exhibit, which features 57 paintings and drawings that span the entirety of Rockwell’s career, opens July 2. A 12-minute movie of Spielberg and Lucas explaining their thoughts on Rockwell and his work plays on a loop in the galleries.

Spielberg and Lucas wanted to share Rockwell’s works, which usually hang in their homes and offices, with another audience, exhibit curator Virginia Mecklenburg said.

Rockwell “showed us an idealized version of life, of what he wanted it to be or what he thought it to be,” Lucas said in the film. “All the things that were in the Rockwell paintings were a part of my life.”

Rockwell thought like a movie director, museum director Elizabeth Broun said. When he had an idea for a painting, he knew its entire story — what had happened right before the picture was “taken” and what would happen afterward.

“He did his storytelling in a flash,” Spielberg said in a 2008 interview for the exhibit film. “He did it with a single image. And he invites you to explore that image. He draws you into that image, and he invites you to, once it makes an impression on you, to question why.”

This is what’s done in “Happy Birthday Miss Jones,” Mecklenburg said. The painting features a teacher standing at the front of her classroom. She’s just come in and is still holding her hat and coat. Bits of chalk lie on the floor and the children are seated at their desks. The board is covered with birthday messages, including one that says, “Happy Birthday Jonesy.”

“There’s such an attention to detail,” Mecklenburg said. “Rockwell gives us just enough to fill in the rest of the episode.”

To Mecklenburg, the painting shows the children arrived early to surprise their teacher. The boy in the foreground with the chalkboard eraser on his head probably wrote the Jonesy message, as he appears to be a class clown. The children are most likely grinning at her, based on the look on her face.

Rockwell also felt a connection with Hollywood, Mecklenburg said. He often acted like a movie director, seeking models to “play” the subjects in his paintings. After setting up the people and objects to fit the scene that he envisioned in his head, a photographer would take the shot for him. He would then paint a picture based on the photograph.

But sometimes, he would come across things in Hollywood that he thought needed to be captured as a painting.

Mecklenburg described one such example: On the set of the 1930 film “The Texan,” which would later become a popular movie, Rockwell saw actor Gary Cooper, dressed up in his Western gear, sitting in a chair and having his makeup done. Since movies were in black and white back then, a lot of makeup was put on actors to make their features stand out. It struck Rockwell as funny and resulted in Rockwell’s “Gary Cooper as the Texan.” The contrast in the painting is that the big cowboy is having makeup put on him by a smaller man smoking a cigar.

For Mecklenburg, putting together the exhibit was a gift. She said she was just like Spielberg and Lucas, who admired Rockwell’s work when they were children.

“I grew up in the 1950s, and I would rush home and look at his work in the Saturday Evening Post,” she said. “Rockwell’s work is a part of my childhood.”

There will be several free programs related to the exhibit during its six-month run, including showings of Spielberg’s and Lucas’ films and a symposium discussing Rockwell’s work.

The exhibit runs through Jan. 2. More details can be found at americanart.si.edu.