Norman Rockwell’s Cheerleaders
appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post
on February 16, 1952. 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. He painted an astounding 41 covers for The Post
during the 1950s—five in 1952 alone—and thematically sought to portray imagery that was more explicitly American in character. In Cheerleaders
, Rockwell captures a scene that could have occurred in any town in the country: the close loss of a home team against visiting rivals. The minute details he includes serve to enforce this narrative: the empty seats and the only partially visible janitor cleaning up the soda bottles and other detritus left behind indicate that the game has recently ended, leaving only the disappointed, frustrated and stunned cheerleaders in the once-packed seats.
Like the best of his work, Cheerleaders
blends Rockwell’s classic sense of humor and an element of gentle nostalgia with photographic realism. 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 in 1937. He typically started his process by sketching the scene as he imagined it. Only after painstakingly collecting the appropriate props, choosing his desired models and scouting locations would photography sessions begin in his studio. The manner in which Rockwell used photography is often compared to film direction as he rarely took these photographs himself, and instead relied on professional photographers so that he would be free to orchestrate and oversee every detail of pose, expression and prop placement. “I feel that I get a more spontaneous expression and a wider choice of expressions with the assistance of the camera,” he articulated, “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). The decision to photograph live models imbues Cheerleaders
with an immediacy that contributes to its universality. The finished painting, however, is not an exact transcription of an individual photograph: “I do not work from any single photograph exclusively,” Rockwell stated of his process, “but select parts from several poses, so my picture which results from the photographs is a composite of many of them” (as cited in Ron Schick, Norman Rockwell: Behind the
Camera, New York, 2009, p. 101).
Thus while Rockwell utilized photography to his advantage, he never relied on it slavishly. Indeed, his most successful paintings clearly demonstrate both his wonderful imagination and skillful technical ability–qualities that differentiated Rockwell from many of his contemporaries. Marked by solid draftsmanship and compositional design, Cheerleaders
is an especially sophisticated example as it displays the artist's deep knowledge of art historical precedents, particularly the techniques and ideas of the Italian Renaissance. The parallel lines created by the wood panels of the gymnasium floor recede from the foreground to converge at a single point in the distance behind the head of the center figure. This nod to linear perspective—a revolutionary invention of the early 15th
century–creates a sense of depth within the two dimensional picture plane. Rockwell has also rendered the trio of cheerleaders in a triangular composition, an arrangement that both extends his reference to Renaissance painting and draws the viewer’s eye immediately to the central subject of the scene.
Expertly organized to achieve a visual balance, Cheerleaders ultimately attests to Rockwell’s consideration of his own place in the history of art. By exhibiting his ability to emulate these techniques and appropriate them to his own time and place, Rockwell declares himself a true painter whose refined technical process and practiced eye equate him with many of the canon’s most celebrated artists. “No man with a conscience can just bat out illustrations,” he once stated. “He’s got to put all of his talent, all of his feeling into them. If illustration is not considered art, then that is something that we have brought upon ourselves by not considering ourselves artists. I believe that we should say, ‘I am not just an illustrator, I am an artist’” (as cited in Judy Goffman, The Great American Illustrators, New York, 1993, p. 122).