MASTERWORKS BY NORMAN ROCKWELL: THE STUART FAMILY COLLECTION
By the early 1950s Rockwell’s Post covers had achieved a pervasive level of popularity, yet the artist saw even greater levels of creativity and professional success as the decade progressed. Rockwell painted an astounding 41 Post covers during this period and thematically sought to portray imagery more explicitly American in character. In several paintings, of which Saying Grace is one, Rockwell’s work adopted a new sense of seriousness in order to more accurately reflect the realities of post-war America. As The Post’s explanatory text for the image articulated, “The world is not too happy a place these days. There are wars and threats of wars. Anxiety and frustration are abroad, and in many quarters we see the bankruptcy of morals. So, suddenly comes the day to give thanks for the goodness of life. And perhaps this can be done most understandingly by someone like this little old lady who, wherever she may be, bows her head to say grace, speaking not analytically from the mind but spontaneously from the heart” (The Saturday Evening Post, November 24, 1951, p. 3). Despite this new seriousness, however, Rockwell’s classic sense of idealism remained resolutely intact. He continued to strive to capture Americans living their everyday lives and to create scenes that had the possibility of occurring in any town or home. The publication of each Post cover seemed to outdo the last as again and again the artist presented the country with imaginative images that confronted the issues of the American present, yet were steeped in the values of its past.
The creation of Saying Grace began almost exactly a year before its publication date when the artist received a letter from a Post reader. Mrs. Edward V. Earl of Upper Darby, Pennsylvania wrote to the artist on November 27, 1950 about the experience of witnessing a Mennonite family praying in a Horn & Hardart automat. “[Mrs. Earl] had 'observed a plain young woman,’ explains the Norman Rockwell Museum, ‘evidently Polish,’ she said, with a little boy of about five. They walked by her with food-laden trays, laughing and happy to be in the restaurant. They took off their coats, hung them up and returned to their table at which two men were already seated, ‘shoving in their lunch.’ The young woman and boy folded their hands, bowed their heads and, for two minutes, said Grace” (Norman Rockwell Museum Archives, Stockbridge, Massachusetts. ProjectNORMAN, www.nrm.org).
Rockwell publicly declared that while he frequently received suggestions from readers, only four ultimately found their way onto his canvases. Rockwell liked Mrs. Earl’s idea so much, however, that he decided to incorporate it as the basis for his annual Thanksgiving cover of The Post. In his response to Mrs. Earl’s letter, Rockwell thanked her profusely for her suggestion but also warned that any image he created on this theme would likely diverge from her memory of it. Like the best of Rockwell’s work, Saying Grace is an astonishingly complex composition derived from a unique synthesis of photography, preparatory sketches, live models and the artist’s own imagination. He combined each element to ultimately render a picture that uniquely presents an idealistic vision of the times and demonstrates his masterful ability to elevate commercial endeavors into the aesthetic realm.
In 1937, encouraged by a younger generation of illustrators that included Steven Dohanos and John Falter, Rockwell similarly began to use photography to assist in composing his paintings. He typically started his compositional process by sketching the scene as he imagined it. Only after painstakingly collecting the appropriate props, choosing his desired models and scouting the locations required to achieve his desired scene would photography sessions begin in his studio (Fig. 1). Rockwell rarely took these photographs himself, preferring to be free to adjust each element while a hired photographer captured shots under his direction. He recognized the benefits that came from incorporating the camera into his technical process, later articulating, “I feel that I get a more spontaneous expression and a wider choice of expressions with the assistance of the camera and I save a lot of wear and tear on myself and the model” (Rockwell on Rockwell: How I Make a Picture, New York, 1979, p. 92).
Rockwell utilized photography to compose numerous elements of Saying Grace. Several of the artist’s favorite models posed for the restaurant patrons. The young man at the table with his back to the window is Rockwell’s oldest son, Jerry, who was on leave from the U.S. Air Force when he sat for the painting. Rockwell’s student apprentice, Don Winslow, is seated next to Jerry with a cigarette in his mouth. The artist’s assistant, Gene Pelham, enjoys a paper and a cigar at the table in the foreground, while several other frequently used models of the time, including fellow Arlington residents Mrs. Ralph Walker and Bill Sharkey, are also identifiable. Rockwell felt he created his best work when he knew and liked his models. He strove to create a convivial atmosphere as he directed poses and would often initially assume the pose himself to show his model exactly his desired position and expression. Donald F. Hubert, Jr., an Arlington resident who served as the model for the young boy in Saying Grace remembered Rockwell’s kindly demeanor well but also vividly recalled his acute attention to detail, later writing of the experience, “I also remember, in this particular pose, that I could not keep my feet still, so somebody temporarily scotch taped my ankles together for the photo session” (Letter from Donald F. Hubert, Jr., February 11, 1986, Norman Rockwell Museum Archives, Stockbridge, Massachusetts).
The decision to photograph live models imbues Saying Grace with an undeniable sense of naturalistic familiarity, but the technology also allowed the artist to experiment with diverse angles, poses and perspectives that gave his work a new sense of inventiveness. The finished illustration, however, was rarely an exact transcription of an individual photograph: “I do not work from any single photograph exclusively,” Rockwell once articulated of his process, “but select parts from several poses, so my picture which results from the photographs is a composite of many of them” (Ron Schick, Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera, New York, 2009, p. 101). Rockwell’s most ambitious paintings required fifty to one hundred photographs to compose, as the artist strove to capture a range of images consisting of everything from overall composition scenes to the most minute detail shots. Once all were developed, Rockwell would place them on his studio floor and begin to select the best to use, at times cutting and cropping images and pasting them together in new ways.
The apparent veracity of Saying Grace belies the careful planning with which Rockwell executed this composition. Rockwell’s quest for perfection was infamous, and he continued to develop and refine at every stage of his artistic process. He initially planned for Saying Grace to take place in a restaurant in Manhattan’s Times Square. Left unsatisfied with the preparatory photographs captured on site, Rockwell decided to transition the setting to a less site-specific environment. He envisioned the background first as a flower garden and then as a crowd of people hurrying by before finally settling on a rail yard, which he ultimately rendered as the stunningly detailed grisaille displayed in the work’s final version (Fig. 4). Maintaining his desire for authenticity, Rockwell photographed a nearby railroad yard in Rensselar, New York and had tables and chairs from actual diners shipped to his Arlington, Vermont studio in order to accurately portray the setting in its entirety. The heightened sense of photographic realism the canvas displays is additionally supported by the artist’s use of a popular cinematic technique called “deep-focus,” in which the foreground and background objects are given an equal sense of hyper-realistic clarity.
As a result of this laborious preparation and process—which his son Peter remembers as driving his frustrated father to throw the unfinished painting out into the snow—Saying Grace offers a visual testament to Rockwell’s gifts as an artist. Rockwell included every compositional element to serve a specific purpose, ultimately allowing the picture to achieve a perfect sense of balance. The vibrant red highlights strategically placed throughout the scene direct the viewer’s eye through the composition to enhance the tangible sense of depth the artist has created within the two-dimensional picture plane. Of the nine figures whose presence can be detected in the scene, three are portrayed only partially and two are merely suggested, yet all assist as important compositional devices. The two standing figures serve as pendants, helping to frame the composition, while the man eating his breakfast in the foreground creates a window through which the viewer enters the composition. The low perspective utilized here, one likely borrowed from photography, creates the sense that we as the viewers are also sitting in the diner and participating in the action of the scene.
The canvas is painted with an acute attention to detail; the myriad of textures Rockwell includes and juxtaposes—masterfully rendered minutiae such as the glass containers on the table, the grandmother’s crocodile handbag and her grandson’s newly shorn haircut—create a rich and animated surface that also imbues the painting with a strong sense of authenticity. Elements such as the curling cigarette smoke and the half-eaten breakfast on the foreground table are wonderfully immediate, creating the sense that the viewer is witnessing this vignette from life. Indeed, Saying Grace demonstrates perhaps better than any other work in the artist’s oeuvre, Rockwell’s unparalleled ability to encapsulate the subtle details of a complex narrative into a single, compelling image. This ability finds a parallel in the work of another great American master of the twentieth century, Edward Hopper, who similarly presented momentary yet extraordinarily compelling glimpses into the lives of ordinary Americans (Fig. 2).
Simultaneously, however, we are not privy to the full arc of Rockwell’s narrative: Why have the woman and her grandson wandered into such an establishment where they are clearly out of place? Where are they going and from where have they come? The degree of ambiguity Rockwell includes only makes his image more captivating. We want to know more, to fully understand the scene he has rendered and the message he seeks to convey in this visually stunning and emotionally compelling work. Once we look closer, the artist’s message reveals itself: it is not the praying family who is Rockwell’s true subject but rather the crowd of onlookers who admittedly observe and consider them, yet ultimately allow them to give thanks in peace. Rather than a celebration of a particular religious practice, Saying Grace presents American culture as a place where differing values and customs are accepted. The artist explored this subject of tolerance at several iconic moments in his career, most famously in Freedom to Worship (1943), and The Golden Rule (1961) (Fig. 5). What distinguishes Saying Grace from these images, however, is the beautiful subtlety with which Rockwell translates his message.
“I suppose we all have our own favorite Rockwells,” Ken Stuart wrote in 1961, reflecting on the career of his friend and collaborator of nearly 20 years. Serving as the art editor for The Saturday Evening Post during the most pivotal years of Rockwell’s association with the publication, Stuart understood the powerful reach of the artist’s imagery perhaps better than anyone; while we each find an image in Rockwell's body of work that gives us pause, particularly delights, or immediately transports us back in time to a moment of our own lives, the appeal of Rockwell remains universal. The sense of nostalgia Saying Grace presents continues to resonate with any American who has ever said grace before a meal or shared a quiet moment with a loved one. While his imagery undoubtedly adapted to evolving cultural norms and social mores over time, it consistently evokes a sense of timeless familiarity. Even today the figures he rendered—often modeled after his friends and family members—could be our own friends, neighbors or even ourselves. The particular vision of American life he projected has become integral to the country’s idea of itself and its history, contributing to Rockwell’s reputation as an astute chronicler of the American experience.
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