Road Block stands among the most ambitious of the over 300 paintings Rockwell executed for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post (Fig. 3). One of the country’s preeminent publications of the first half of the 20th century, The Post reached thousands of households on a bi-monthly basis, allowing the particular vision of American life Rockwell projected through his images to become an integral part of the country’s idea of itself and its values. As he earned himself a reputation as one of The Post’s most popular artists, Rockwell received particular praise for his ability to encapsulate the components of a complex narrative—plot, character, mood and setting—into a single image. Storytelling became a word frequently associated with his work and as his career developed and flourished nearly in tandem with the rise in popularity of American filmmaking, the manner in which he executed his most ambitious paintings was often compared to film direction (Fig. 1). Indeed, the most sophisticated works he executed in the 1940s and 1950s evoke a quality that is undeniably cinematic, as is demonstrated in Road Block.
During the 1940s Rockwell made several trips to California, where he painted the present work. The composition is derived from a unique synthesis of photography, preparatory sketches, live models and the artist’s own imagination. “I got the basic idea from my old friend, Clyde Forsythe, a cartoonist and landscape painter who had been a good and helpful friend for many years” Rockwell explained of the painting’s genesis. “He told me of seeing a whole line of traffic stalled by a pup sitting unconcernedly in the middle of a busy thoroughfare. It seemed to me that the idea had picture possibilities and I started thinking about it and made some rough sketches. At first it seemed to me that a great big truck stopped by a small truck would be even funnier. Then one day I happened to walk down a narrow alley in Los Angeles where I was working at the time and the idea of a big truck stuck in a narrow alley came to me. The idea of the truck, the pup, the alley and a lot of excited people just seemed right” (Ibid.).
To compose Road Block, Rockwell hired a professional to photograph the set he designed in the actual alley he had stumbled upon near Seventh Street and Rampart Boulevard in Los Angeles. He chose this specific location, he later articulated, because he felt it showed the different “strata” of American city life. His models, or cast of characters as he sometimes referred to them, were a mix of students and employees whom he recruited from the Los Angeles County Art Institute, actual residents of the apartments surrounding the alley and other people he just liked the look of (Fig. 4). Among those pictured are Joe Mugniani, Rockwell’s friend and an instructor at the Institute, as the artist holding his palette and pointing his brush out of the window, as well as his own son, Peter, who holds the violin case in the bottom left corner of the composition. Rockwell also included a self-portrait, picturing himself as the violin teacher peering out the right window above the moving truck. Always insisting on authenticity, Rockwell borrowed a moving van from Bekins Moving Company, but insisted that the front of the white cab and trailer be painted a specific, striking shade of red. He also changed the name of the moving company in the final image. As his photographer began to shoot, Rockwell orchestrated every detail of each model’s pose and expression and the placement of each prop. “In each case where I used photographs,” he described of his method. “I personally first went to the place where the person was to pose and acted out the pose myself to show the model what I wanted and get him in the mood. After all, in such a situation you must be the creator and the director and the spark plug that ignites the action. You must make your models lose any feeling of indifference or self-consciousness and get interested and excited” (Ibid, p. 144).
Photography became an integral part of Rockwell’s process in the late 1930s, but his finished paintings were never an exact transcription of an individual photograph. “I do not work from any single photograph exclusively,” he explained, “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 complex paintings required 50 to 100 photographs to create, and he utilized a range of images consisting of everything from overall composition scenes to the smallest details. Once the photographs were developed, Rockwell would place them on his studio floor to select the best to use, at times cutting and cropping images and pasting them together in new ways. The photographer hired to shoot Road Block took a total of 72 photographs, and Rockwell selected 40 with which to compose his large-scale charcoal drawing—the next step in his highly refined creative process. The artist later stated that the drawing, or preliminary as he called it, for Road Block was the most elaborate one he ever made.
The photographic realism Road Block displays belies the careful planning with which Rockwell executed this composition. He often amended or exaggerated elements of a photograph to emphasize a particular mood or message. Indeed, as his ultimate objective was to immediately capture the attention of his audience, Rockwell had to convey the meaning of his image—the plot of his narrative—instantaneously. To accomplish this, Rockwell very deliberately organized the elements of the composition to converge at the dog sitting in the center of the composition (Fig. 2). He explained the intended effect by saying, “When you can do this in a picture it is always a fine thing because the device obviously leads the eye of the observer directly to what you want him to see. Finally, so that no one could possibly overlook the pup, I virtually made a bull’s eye of him by creating a circle around him. The circle begins with the window cleaner and goes right around counter-clockwise until it reaches the top of the picture at the violin teacher. Thus I made doubly sure that the pup would have the spotlight” (Ibid., p. 147).
The success and enduring popularity of images like Road Block speak to Rockwell’s ability to select subjects that appealed almost universally to the American audience, and to uniquely infuse his compositions with compelling elements of comedy and drama. “It is easy to see that had he not been a gifted artist,” stated 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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