Beyond this new sense of contentment, the move precipitated a pivotal change in Rockwell’s working methods, for he found he did not have to look far to discover a wide range of ideas and models to paint. Living in working-class New Rochelle had required Rockwell to depend largely on children to serve as models as the majority of the adult population could not spare the long stretches of idle time required to sit for the artist. When he did paint adults, Rockwell almost solely utilized professional models, a reliance he came to believe hindered the degree of authenticity his work could achieve. Rockwell found the opposite in Arlington: a plethora of neighbors of all ages willing to model for him. “Now my pictures grew out of the world around me,” Rockwell described of this change, “the everyday life of my neighbors. I don’t fake it anymore” (Susan E. Meyer, Norman Rockwell’s People, New York, 1981, p. 64).
The Gossips is the culmination of Rockwell’s fascination with the subject of gossip—while he had painted works exploring this theme in the past, it was not until his immersion in the Arlington community that the final composition came to fruition. In the present work, Rockwell depicts 15 figures, each portrayed twice, as part of a chain receiving and passing on a tidbit of gossip. The attention he pays to naturalistic detail in these expressive portraits is exceptional, and the artist ultimately conveys a sense of the personality and character of each figure. Ben Hibbs, Rockwell's editor at The Saturday Evening Post, reportedly doubted whether the artist could have achieved this degree of accuracy by working from live models. Hibb’s skepticism was assuaged only when the artist revealed photographs taken of each person (Fig. 2). Each wrinkle, strand of hair, and gleeful expression is captured with such impressive accuracy that it seems they could only have been conjured from the artist’s imagination. Many of the 15 figures illustrated are identifiable today as Rockwell's Arlington neighbors.
Rockwell’s tendency towards self-deprecation was legendary among Post staffers, a quality displayed in the numerous letters exchanged over the years between the artist and his editors. Even as he created his most impressive covers, Rockwell worried that each one failed to meet his own rigorous standards. This professional drive often caused him to rework a composition repeatedly throughout his process, making alterations to the overall composition, palette, and minute details until he felt the imagery would instantly appeal to readers. Rockwell was fascinated by the subject of gossip because of its inherent universality. He rightly felt that the majority of his audience could empathize with the impulse to exchange personal information, and that many readers had at one point or another found themselves its victim. He addressed the theme at several moments in his professional career prior to 1948, notably as covers for both LIFE magazine, in 1922, and the Post, in 1929, which featured James van Brunt—one of his favorite models of the time—as each of the three gossips sitting in a tight huddle, sharing the news (Fig. 3).
Rockwell continued to experiment with the theme of gossip for years, and apparently decided to pitch the subject as a cover for The Post after discovering an old sketch of two whispering figures in his attic. The ambitious 1948 version, underwent numerous compositional adjustments before Rockwell finally presented the finished canvas to his Post editors. The recollections of both the artist and his editors reveal the laboriousness it took to achieve The Gossips. Rockwell himself admitted, “Sometimes it takes me years to perfect an idea. My gossips cover, for instance. First thought of it twenty, thirty years before I painted it: heads of fifteen people in five rows on Post cover—thirty heads in all, for the people are passing on a luscious tidbit of gossip and you see each person twice, as he hears the gossip and as he tells it. But couldn’t figure out how to end it. Last person in bottom row telling gossip to nobody? No good. Stewed over idea off and on for, as I say, twenty or thirty years. Finally dredged up a solution. The gossip would come round at the end to the person it was about” (Ibid., p. 368).
Ken Stuart also remembered the many evolutions his favorite Rockwell painting underwent: “It began to take form,” he recollected, “not as [seen in the final version], but as two old ladies talking over a fence. Then, for a time, there were ten heads, in the shape of a question mark. At different times Norman considered, forgot, worried, and perfected the painting. So that thirteen years passed before he finally let us have the version that satisfied him” (Norman Rockwell, The Norman Rockwell Album, Garden City, New York, 1961, p. 12).
In the final version, Rockwell has arranged 30 portrait heads in a grid of six columns and five rows. In person and by telephone they pass the chain of gossip along each row of the grid from left to right, and top to bottom. Rockwell provides strong visual cues to the viewer to indicate the progression of action embedded in the image. Every compositional element further enhances the central narrative: he includes a detail of green or black pigment on nearly every subject, a decision which allowed him to unify a segmented composition while also compelling the viewer’s eye to naturally proceed from portrait to portrait, following the chain of gossips as it spreads.
Although Rockwell chose this particular compositional arrangement to mirror the way a reader would also read a columned article in The Post, this organization also closely resembles the frames of a film, rapidly moving like a montage that also underscores the idea of the quick and inevitable spread of gossip. He strengthens this cinematic association by making himself, pictured in the brown hat in the bottom row, the victim of the gossip who goes on to confront the instigator of the tale. By bringing the narrative full circle, Rockwell embeds the work with protagonists, antagonists and a plot, in the manner of a film. “By applying his American scene technique to faces instead of settings,” writes Karal Ann Marling, “Rockwell succeeds in making a kind of documentary film on the baleful effects of gossip in the life of a small town” (Norman Rockwell, New York, 1997, p. 85).
Rockwell also explored the visual effect of montage in several other Post commissions. The year prior, on August 30, 1947, The Post published Coming and Going, a work that depicts a family leaving for and returning from vacation in two separate images. Rockwell’s use of montage in his subsequent cover illustrations Day in a Life of a Girl and Day in a Life of a Boy (Fig. 4) also closely resembles The Gossips. Nevertheless, The Gossips differentiates itself from these endeavors in its compositional sophistication and remarkable sense of authenticity in both the imagery and content.
In the wake of The Gossips’ publication, The Post received thousands of letters from readers inquiring what precisely Rockwell’s figures were whispering about, but an answer was never revealed. Although Rockwell refrained from identifying the model who served as the gossipy instigator, and inserted himself and his wife to show that they too were not above idle chatter, in a subsequent 1948 interview the artist recounted that this particular model remained, "a little peeved at him." The success and enduring popularity of The Gossips speaks to Rockwell’s innate ability to select subjects that appealed to a wide range of American readers, and to inject humor into even the most ordinary or gently satirical of scenes. “It is easy to see that had he not been a gifted artist,” states his biographer Christopher Finch, “Norman Rockwell might well have become a successful writer or director for films or television. Situation comedy has been one of the most popular genres in both these mediums, and no one has a better knack for inventing comic situations than Rockwell” (102 Favorite Paintings by Norman Rockwell, New York, 1978, p. 124).
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