Washington, DC

Norman Rockwell, —And Daniel Boone Comes to Life on the Underwood Portable, 1923, oil on canvas, 36 x 28".

Norman Rockwell, —And Daniel Boone Comes to Life on the Underwood Portable, 1923, oil on canvas, 36 x 28".

Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell, —And Daniel Boone Comes to Life on the Underwood Portable, 1923, oil on canvas, 36 x 28".

THE ILLUSTRATOR Norman Rockwell’s rehabilitation as a painter can be dated to the fin de siècle retrospective that originated at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art in November 1999 and toured the US (Chicago; Washington, DC; San Diego; Phoenix; and the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts) for two years before triumphantly occupying the grand ramp of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York only weeks after the trauma of September 11, 2001.

Never had cultural comfort food been more welcome. The market responded accordingly (as did the New York Times, which tied its own coverage of 9/11 to the Guggenheim show by running a series of reconfigured Rockwell images advertising the newspaper itself). When the exhibition opened in Atlanta, the record price for one of Rockwell’s oil paintings—virtually all of which were created for reproduction as magazine covers, illustrations, or advertisements (and were, in some cases, discarded by their corporate patrons)—was under a million dollars; in 2006, Rockwell’s Breaking Home Ties, 1954, was purchased at auction for $15.4 million. Itself illustrating this reversal of fortune, the Smithsonian’s current blockbuster, titled “Telling Stories,” is not solely about Rockwell as artist but about Rockwell as collectible: Every one of the forty-three oil paintings and fourteen (mainly charcoal) sketches on view is owned by either George Lucas or Steven Spielberg.

Texas billionaire and presidential also-ran H. Ross Perot of course collects Rockwell, but it should be no less surprising that the artist would have a special appeal to American moviemakers. Given his involvement in mechanical reproduction and the mass audience, not to mention his wholesome, wholehearted celebration of perceived American values, Rockwell has at least as much in common with those moguls of make-believe Frank Capra and Walt Disney as with representational painters like Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper. It’s hardly coincidental that Rockwell has been most assiduously collected by the two men most associated with the American movie industry’s post-’60s resurrection and—as the creators of American Graffiti (1973), Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977) and its sequels, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and its sequels, E.T. (1982), et al.— the most successful Hollywood filmmakers of the late twentieth century. Whereas the ambitious directors of the late ’60s and early ’70s aspired to difficult, downbeat, even “modernist” movies, Lucas’s and Spielberg’s blockbusters were feel-good entertainments as immediately and universally accessible (not to mention as all-American and blatantly innocent) as . . . a picture by Norman Rockwell.

The Lucas and Spielberg collections predate Rockwell’s Guggenheim apotheosis by nearly twenty years; it was during the collaborative production of Raiders of the Lost Ark that director Spielberg followed producer Lucas’s lead and purchased his first Rockwell canvas, a 1923 typewriter advertisement titled —And Daniel Boone Comes to Life on the Underwood Portable, an image of a studious young fellow (sleeves rolled, tie knotted) focusing on his Underwood as, in a vaporously pink and purple Valhalla above his head, the craggy frontiersman cradles his long rifle and gazes off toward eternity. (“I hung the painting over my desk,” Spielberg told New York Times critic Deborah Solomon. “It was my deblocker. Whenever I hit a wall or couldn’t figure out where a story was going, I just looked up at that painting.”) Lucas owns a related canvas, the 1923 Saturday Evening Post illustration Boy Reading Adventure Story, in which a younger, bespectacled version of the Underwood writer buries his nose in an outsize tome, the circular image of a mounted knight in armor we see behind him presumably his visualization of the story he is reading.

Unlike the Underwood ad, Boy Reading Adventure Story has a joke: The knight’s visor is raised to reveal the boy’s face. (From a contemporary perspective, it’s a double joke, in that Rockwell has anticipated Lucas’s insertion of the teenage Luke Skywalker into the heroic universe of Star Wars.) To judge from “Telling Stories,” however, it’s the Spielberg-owned Rockwells that skew comic. Lucas, who has the larger collection, prefers the fustier, N. C. Wyeth–influenced illustrations of Rockwell’s 1920s, child-oriented period. Lucas’s pieces evince a particular interest in children’s games and sports-related themes; his ownership of the 1920 Literary Digest illustration The Toy Maker and the 1922 Saturday Evening Post cover Christmas: Santa with Elves underscores Pauline Kael’s Raiders of the Lost Ark review, which ended with the tart observation that “essentially, George Lucas is in the toy business.” Spielberg’s works, on the other hand, are punchier and more significant in the context of the Rockwell oeuvre, including preparatory illustrations for the artist’s two self-reflexive Saturday Evening Post covers, Triple Self-Portrait, 1960, and The Connoisseur, 1962. Both are given pride of place at the Smithsonian. The Connoisseur, which represents a mock Jackson Pollock drip canvas (and which Spielberg declined to lend to the 1999 exhibit), has a wall to itself. A charcoal sketch of Triple Self-Portrait fronts the gallery in which an accompanying twelve-minute film is shown.

Triple Self-Portrait, in which Rockwell is shown sketching himself from a mirror (with small self-portraits by Dürer, Rembrandt, van Gogh, and Picasso affixed at the edge of his canvas), is an obvious but not anomalous work. Rockwell’s images are nothing if not self-aware; the act of regarding something is often their subject. Sight lines are important and occasionally produce an amusing subtext, as when the little boy in a 1922 Edison Mazda Lamp Works ad, The Stuff of Which Memories Are Made, appears to be offering his nightly prayers to a ridiculous little clown doll sitting Buddha-like under a table lamp. Despite the characterization of Rockwell as a storyteller, his images don’t really provide narratives so much as they dramatize situations. (“I do ordinary people in everyday situations and that’s about all I can do,” the artist himself once said.) Rockwell at first always drew from life—later, mostly from photographs—and, as Lucas points out, his pictures were carefully cast, or typecast, and his characters are strongly individuated. These situation-images (“a story in one frame” per Lucas) are like posters for unmade movies. (Although no examples appear in the show, Rockwell’s contribution to Hollywood promotion included ads for The Magnificent Ambersons and The Song of Bernadette.)

No doubt much of Rockwell’s appeal derives from his fastidious photorealism, precise details, and carefully staged mise-en-scène. But mainly it’s founded on immediate impact. Even his pictorial double entendres are remarkably unsubtle. In The Tender Years: New Calendar, 1957, an elderly man’s little pipe perks up as he admires the cowgirl pinup in the mildly suggestive calendar he’s just nailed to the wall. The 1960 Window Washer is the most charming (and cosmic) of Rockwell’s erotic reveries: A dishy young secretary, her outfit signifying ripeness and repression in equal measure, stares longingly at the crotch of the rakish window washer who has appeared like an annunciating angel (the answer to a maiden’s prayer) behind the oblivious boss who is giving her dictation. Superior modeling and evident brushwork notwithstanding, many Rockwell paintings appear as extraordinarily well-rendered gag cartoons—cartoons with the presence of icons, so expressive they don’t require a caption. Thus The Connoisseur is less striking for its painstakingly rendered Pollock pastiche than for its ambiguity. His back to the spectator and his nose no more than a foot away from the canvas within the canvas, an old-fashioned gentleman, complete with white gloves and tightly sheathed umbrella, ponders the mystery of existence—which is to say, a hilariously garish mess. If there’s a joke, who’s it on? Spielberg associates The Connoisseur with Alfred Hitchcock contemplating the New Hollywood of Easy Rider. (Spielberg himself identifies with the scared ten-year-old subject of Boy on High Dive, 1947, crouched at the edge of a diving board, peering into the void. The filmmaker keeps the painting in his office so as to see it every day.)

Cover of the Saturday Evening Post (September 17, 1960). Illustrated with Norman Rockwell’s Window Washer, 1960.

Interviewed in the exhibition’s film, Lucas and Spielberg both associate Rockwell with their respective childhoods—a point similarly stressed by the two art critics most enthusiastic about the 1999 Rockwell show, Peter Schjeldahl and Dave Hickey. Lucas in particular maintains that, as illustrated by his quasi-autobiographical American Graffiti, he had a “Rockwell” youth. For him, the world Rockwell invented actually did exist: “He showed you real people, the way they lived their lives.” This insistence on Rockwell’s verisimilitude illuminates a Hollywood way of knowledge. The artist’s genius lay in his ability to provide millions of people with images so instantly recognizable and immediately familiar that they had the force of truth. Of course, the necessary paradox of this inclusive democratic art was its rigorous exclusion of so much of what PBS is pleased to call the “American experience.” Rockwell’s later work, such as A Time for Greatness, 1964, a heroic posthumous portrait of JFK at the Democratic National Convention, made for Look magazine rather than for the more conservative Saturday Evening Post, is strongly suggestive of official Soviet art. Indeed, Rockwell, who visited the Soviet Union in the late ’60s, admired the local painters: Although old-fashioned, he thought, “they communicate an idealism. Their art has a constructive viewpoint.” Hickey extolled Rockwell in Vanity Fair as “America’s Vermeer.” Rockwell does have points of contact with Dutch genre painting, although he might better be called America’s Jan Steen, the twentieth-century Winslow Homer, the goyish Arthur Szyk. Why not America’s Isaac Brodsky or Alexander Gerasimov?

No less than socialist realism, Rockwell’s art can be defined as “utopia in lifelike forms.” The United States Information Agency had no need to promote his work; Rockwell’s every image, even his celebrated attack on segregation, was an endorsement of the American way. If, as Hickey maintains, Rockwell is “the only painter [sic] in America who depicts bourgeois mercantile society without inflection,” it is because, more than any American artist before Andy Warhol (the grand master of mechanical reproduction), Rockwell so effortlessly resolved its contradictions. The oddest thing, as well as the most modern, about the Rockwell oeuvre is its sense of constituting a closed system. His characters inhabit a Rockwell world—they are the “real people” who would have Rockwell calendars in their kitchens and send one another Rockwell cards at Christmas. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg live there—and when we look at Rockwell’s images, we do too.

“Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg,” organized by Virginia M. Mecklenburg, is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, through January 2, 2011.

J. Hoberman is senior film critic for the Village Voice.