The American painter and magazine illustrator Norman Rockwell (1874-1978) is renowned for his artistry and storytelling ability in depicting American life in the early to mid-20th century, particularly in the 322 covers he created for the Saturday Evening Post over nearly five decades. Works from the private collections of two noted Rockwell fans, filmmakers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, are now featured in a new exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C, "Telling Stories."
"There's a spark of humanity in these that is, you know, just unfettered emotionalism," said Lucas. "And of course, that's why he's been kind of looked down on for so long, because you can't be emotional in art. Well, one of the greatest emotional painters, in my mind, was Michelangelo. [And in his paintings]. the people are very emotional."
"You know, so many artists have a tendency to paint without emotion, without any connection to the audience," said Lucas. "And both Steve and I are diehard emotionalists. We love to connect with the audience. Rockwell loved to connect with the audience."
American painter Norman Rockwell, pictured in his studio at Stockbridge, Mass., in 1973.
"When I was growing up, Rockwell was a household name he was everywhere," Lucas said. "Everybody knew about him, everybody knew his work. And you know, as we get into the 21st century some of that begins to fade into another era. And I think this generation needs to be able to look at a part of America that existed in, really, the 20th century."
In the "Shadow Artist" (which usually hangs in Lucas' office), the director sees a figure not too far removed from that of a motion picture director.
"It's the entertainer, using light and motion," he told CBS News correspondent Rita Braver, "which is where our industry started."
"Boy on a High Dive" is usually in Spielberg's office: "This is the Rockwell that, every time I'm ready to make a movie, every time I'm ready to commit to direct a movie, that's me that's the feeling in my gut, before I say 'yes' to a picture. Because every movie is like looking off a three-meter diving board, every one!"
The two directors, photographed in 1984. Lucas achieved fame first with his nostalgic tale of teenagers creeping toward independence in 1962, "American Graffiti," and then with the blockbuster fantasy "Star Wars." Spielberg's early successes with "Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," and "E.T.: The Extraterrestrial" cemented his reputation for fond depictions of contemporary suburban life, with a remarkable acuity for the point of views of children. They eventually collaborated on the Indiana Jones adventure "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
George Lucas told Braver that he'd been a Rockwell fan "every since I was a little tiny boy, and I'd look at the covers of the Saturday Evening Post that were around our house. I was very interested in art, and I was very interested in drawings, and I lived in a little rural town in southern California [where] there were no art museums, so most of my introduction to art was really magazine covers and illustrations in books. So that's what really started me out at a very early age, six or seven years old."
Lucas said as a boy he was inspired by the cultural aspects of Rockwell's work: "I liked the fact that it was very much about where we lived, how we felt about things, what our life was like . . . with a lot of nuances. It was corny in a kinda way, but I didn't know corny when I was five years old, six years old. But I did understand that this is something that I related to, the fact that it was about me. This is the world I lived in. All the paintings were about me and my friends and all of the things that I was used to doing every day. I was always amazed that he was able to know that much about me."
Spielberg told Braver that at a similarly young age, he was interested not in the art of Rockwell's images but in the narrative possibilities they offered him: "I would make up stories for myself. I would write a lot of stories down. My dad would subscribe to the Saturday Evening Post, and when it arrived at the house the first thing I would do is I would try to tell the story of the premise of the painting, because Rockwell's paintings, for me, were all premises. And then he invited our imaginations into the premise. So I would basically try to finish the Rockwell story, based on a frame."
Before he acquired Rockwell's 1923 painting "---And Daniel Boone Comes to Life on the Underwood Portable," Spielberg said he saw several Rockwells that Lucas had purchased. "And I couldn't believe that somebody that I knew had a living, breathing oil painting by the hand of this great American icon," he laughed. "So I went out and I got a bigger Rockwell!"
Lucas added, "And I went out and got two more!"
Exhibit curator Virginia Mecklenberg was "thrilled" with the quality of the collections the two filmmakers had amassed. She told Braver that Rockwell himself was fascinated with the movies as evident from the time he spent in Hollywood where he captured Gary Cooper and his makeup man on location for "The Texan."
When asked what it was about the Rockwell images that spoke to him, Spielberg replied that his interest was in "the family group ensembles, the vacation with the kid sticking his head out of the car with the dog whose fur was blowing in the same wind that was blowing the eight-year-old boy's hair. The families together, a reunion, togetherness, everybody getting along, relatively speaking.
Also, Spielberg added, "The deep, sardonic humor of a lot of his work, because he really did have a wit and a charm in the way he put people and cultures together and then kind of just turned it all on the Rockwell ear, just a little bit, you know, akimbo."
Rockwell's visions of the home and hearth directly influenced scenes in Spielberg's 1987 film, "Empire of the Sun," in particular Rockwell's famous "Freedom From Fear." "I actually had the magazine open to that picture when they were putting the young boy, Jim, to bed before everything falls apart in World War II," he said. "That image represented what the film meant to me, which was a boy being separated from the civilization that he was born into, and almost a kind of entitled culture that he was living in. This boy was going to go from riches to rags in a matter of days, and that picture was the last image of relative safety within the home, with a mother and a father, a family unit that was going to be dashed to pieces."
One painting in Spielberg's collection, "The Flirts," seems more attuned to the experience of "American Graffiti" director Lucas, who grew up with fast cars in California (and almost died in an accident at age 18). Admitting that he was raised in a "Rockwell World," Lucas suggested that the connection is "sort of reversed."
"For a director, casting is 50 percent of either your success or failure in a film project," Spielberg said. Judging from the "models" he recruited neighbors from in and around his hometown of Stockbridge, Mass. the filmmaker called Rockwell "one of the best casting directors."
Both Rockwell and Spielberg produced remarkable portrayals of the lives of children. "Once he got the kids, he had to give them a kind of authenticity by creating however he did it a way for the kids to be disarmed, because you can't have a kid conscious of the camera and the lights," Spielberg said. "A kid has to suddenly fall back into his own reality in order for the truth to be told about that performance. Rockwell could do that.
"I've worked with a lot of kids, and I've often admired Rockwell for how tough it is sometimes to get kids to be natural."
Mecklenberg said that Rockwell's paintings often show an America that wears its heart and morals on its sleeves and that the artist always had something to say. Spielberg agreed: "He had a tremendous respect for the virtues of mankind. And there was a morality to his work. And there was a real sense of community, of family, and especially of nation. And, you know, I'm very proud of all the work that he did, because I can then bring some of those paintings (or certainly some of the illustrations from all the books) into my children's lives."
"He loved people's profiles," Spielberg noted. "I did a shot in 'Close Encounters,' toward the end of the film, when all the scientists are all lined up, and I had Rockwell on my mind when I set the lens and the camera. And the lighting was specifically the three-quarter front light from the backside, that gave that kind of nobility to all of the faces."
The senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Virginia Mecklenburg, is author of a book from Abrams based on the Lucas and Spielberg collections. Also featured in "Telling Stories" is an essay by longtime Variety film critic Todd McCarthy.
Lucas said Rockwell's work, like that of other popular American artists like Mark Twain George Gershwin, truly embodies the American Spirit. "They all have that kind of effervescence that's American. They all have the kind of fantasy, but with enough truth in it to make it worthwhile."