Winter 2018

Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera

Exhibition Feature

Louis Lamone, Photographer, Bill Scovill and Norman Rockwell, ca 1962, Inkjet print, Norman Rockwell Collection, ©1962 Norman Rockwell Family Agency.
The Runaway
Norman Rockwell, The Runaway, 1958, Cover of The Saturday Evening Post,
September 20, 1958, oil on canvas, Norman Rockwell Museum Collection.
©SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Licensing, Indianapolis, IN. All rights reserved.

Gilcrease Museum is pleased to bring a landmark exhibition showcasing the art and artistry of Norman Rockwell in a distinctly new light. Organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum with works from its permanent collection, Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera gathers prints of Rockwell’s study photographs and original paintings and drawings linked to photographs in the exhibition. The result is a fascinating frame-by-frame view of the development of some of Rockwell’s most indelible images. At the same time, the photographs themselves — painstakingly staged by Rockwell with an array of models, costumes, props and settings — are fully realized works of art in their own right.

Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera is the first exhibition to explore in depth Rockwell’s richly detailed study photographs, created by the artist as references for his now iconic paintings. The exhibition reveals this rarely seen, yet fundamental aspect of Rockwell’s creative process and unveils a significant new body of Rockwell imagery in an unexpected medium.

“Norman Rockwell was a natural storyteller with an unerring eye for detail,” says Stephanie Haboush Plunkett, deputy director and chief curator of the Norman Rockwell Museum. “This groundbreaking exhibition shows how that narrative instinct found its first expression in the artist’s meticulously composed photographs.”

Reference photographs for Soda Jerk
Gene Pelhem, Photographer
Reference photograph for Soda Jerk, 1953, Inkjet print, Norman Rockwell Collection, ©1953 Norman Rockwell Family Agency.

Early in his career, Rockwell hired professional models to pose for the characters in his paintings. Beginning in the mid-1930s, however, the evolving naturalism of his work led him to embrace photography, which had increasingly come in vogue as a useful tool for fine artists and a natural ally of commercial illustrators working on tight deadlines. For Rockwell, already known as “the kid with the camera eye,” photography was more than an artist’s aid. The camera brought a new flesh-and-blood realism to his work and opened a window to the keenly observed authenticity that defines his art. Working with friends and neighbors rather than professional models fired Rockwell’s imagination by providing a wide assortment of everyday faces, while the camera’s ability to capture a fleeting expression or freeze an especially difficult pose gave him free reign in imagining and constructing his visual narratives and sometimes serendipitously catching the nuances of character for which he is so beloved.

Reference photograph for Soda Jerk
Gene Pelhem, Photographer
Reference photograph for Soda Jerk, 1953, Inkjet print, Norman Rockwell Collection, ©1953 Norman Rockwell Family Agency.

“Photography has been a benevolent tool for artists from Thomas Eakins and Edgar Degas to David Hockney,” notes Ron Schick, exhibition curator. “But the thousands of photographs Norman Rockwell created as studies for his iconic images are a case apart.” Exceptional in scope and detail, these study photographs are distinguished by Rockwell’s gift for character and narrative. And for viewers today, says Schick, they elicit “a haunting sense of déjà vu, mirroring his masterworks in a tangible parallel universe.”

Before committing his ideas to canvas, Rockwell brought them fully to life in studio sessions. He carefully orchestrated each element of his design for the camera, selecting props and locations, choosing and directing his models — even getting in on the action to pose and perform. In fact, Rockwell’s photographic archive reveals that the artist himself was his most frequently captured model. Rockwell staged his photographs much as a film director works with a cinematographer, instructing his cameramen when to shoot, yet never personally firing the shutter.

Reference Photograph of Norman Rockwell
Bill Scovill, Photographer
Reference Photograph of Norman Rockwell, Norman Rockwell says “Pan American Was My Magic Carpet Around the World,” advertisement for Pan American Airways, 1956, Inkjet print, Norman Rockwell Collection, ©1956 Norman Rockwell Family Agency.

Rockwell created dozens, even hundreds of photographs for each new subject, sometimes capturing complete compositions and other times jigsawing separate pictures of individual elements together. Photography brought all the essential elements of Rockwell’s art completely under his direct control. For an artist with a “camera eye,” narrative genius and commitment to painstaking perfectionism, no better tool can be imagined.

A member opening for Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera is set for February 15, 2018, from 6 to 8 p.m. The exhibition runs through June 10, 2018. Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera has been organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Media sponsorship has been provided by Curtis Licensing, a division of The Saturday Evening Post and the Norman Rockwell Family Agency.

Title sponsor of the Gilcrease Museum exhibition season is the Sherman E. Smith Family Charitable Foundation. Generous support has also been provided by the Mervin Bovaird Foundation, C.W. Titus Foundation and M.V. Mayo Charitable Foundation.