The first image to appear in full color on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post
, Pipe and Bowl Sign Painter
is a remarkable example from Norman Rockwell’s beloved body of work. Rockwell’s professional relationship with The Saturday Evening Post
was the most significant one of his career; for nearly 50 years, he executed over 300 memorable images that appeared on its cover beginning in 1916, when George Horace Lorimer, the editor of The Post
from 1899 to 1937, accepted two of his paintings for publication. A decade later Rockwell had created nearly 80 covers, and his subtly nostalgic and persistently optimistic imagery—infused with a sense of warmth and humor—had become almost synonymous with The Post
To coincide with the sesquicentennial anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which America was celebrating in 1926, Lorimer wanted this cover to reference The Pos
t’s historical association with Benjamin Franklin, whose own publication the Pennsylvania Gazette
became known as The Saturday Evening Post
in 1821. He asked Rockwell to set the scene in Franklin’s place and time. Lorimer, explains Jan Cohn, “believed that one important aim for The Post was to create a sense of nationalism strong enough to override America’s regional differences. Thus, just as nonfiction frequently turned to American history for subject matter, these covers mined the same material to create the visual representations of heroic and sentimental episodes” (Covers of ‘The Saturday Evening Post: Seventy Years of Outstanding Illustration from America’s Favorite Magazine
, New York, 1995, p. 2). Rockwell also had a personal interest in this historical period, and his Colonial Revival house in New Rochelle, New York was filled with artifacts and props like the ones seen in Pipe and Bowl Sign Painter
that captured from life.
Pipe and Bowl Sign Painter
depicts one of Rockwell’s favorite models from the 1920s, his friend and neighbor, James K. Van Brunt.
Van Brunt posed for Rockwell as a number of diverse characters and in a variety of narratives during this time. From the outset, it was Van Brunt’s magnificent mustache—neatly trimmed, parted in the middle, and swept downward—that attracted Rockwell, and he immediately began to sketch the man upon meeting him, claiming, “What a face! And mine…all mine” (Norman Rockwell, Norman Rockwell: My Adventures as an Illustrator
, New York, 1994, p. 203). A long working relationship and friendship commenced after their initial meeting, and Rockwell later fondly described the day that the old man first appeared at his studio as being “one of the luckiest days of my life” (Ibid.).
Indeed, Rockwell utilized Van Brunt as a model so frequently that Lorimer eventually asked him to stop, feeling that the model’s likeness—his mustache in particular—was too identifiable and thus becoming repetitive. Rather than desist from portraying Van Brunt, however, Rockwell offered to pay him ten dollars to shave. Though Van Brunt complied, Rockwell ultimately came to regret their deal, believing that he had caused something akin to “the felling of a great oak.” Van Brunt continued to pose for the artist until his death in 1935, but Rockwell often hid his face in a wide range of clever situations and guises to appease his editor.
In Pipe and Bowl Sign Painter, Rockwell depicts Van Brunt as an artist at work painting a sign for a colonial tavern. In his characteristic manner, Rockwell elevates Lorimer's historical theme with his technical skill, sense of humor and unmatched creativity in Pipe and Bowl Sign Painter. The work features the more painterly manner of execution that was typical of Rockwell’s aesthetic in the 1920s and 1930s. Rockwell transitioned away from this style after 1937 when photography became an integral part of his process, but here it contributes to the work’s rich and lively surface. As in the best of Rockwell’s works, Pipe and Bowl Sign Painter is also notable for its strong narrative content. Dr. Donald Stoltz and Marshall L. Stoltz explain, “The cosmetically lovely face on the signboard is hardly a mirror for the worn but plucky face of the sign painter, who, perhaps due to the influence of the contents of the pewter jug, has got the stem of the wineglass in the picture a little crooked” (Norman Rockwell and ‘The Saturday Evening Post:’ 1916-1928, New York, 1976, vol. I, p. 169).
Rockwell enjoyed placing works of art by other artists—both his predecessors and contemporaries—within his own compositions. He also frequently references the act of painting itself, as displayed in works such as his iconic Triple Self-Portrait of 1960 and Pipe and Bowl Sign Painter. This recurring theme—one of his favorites throughout his career—provided the type of visual humor Rockwell loved to present to his viewers. But beyond the wit and humor the allusion provided, Rockwell also used it to demonstrate his sophistication as an artist. In Pipe and Bowl Sign Painter the specific subject becomes self-referential: just as the colonial artist is charged with creating an artwork for the tavern, Rockwell is himself an artist charged with creating an artwork for The Saturday Evening Post. Embedded with multiple layers of meaning, works such as Pipe and Bowl Sign Painter testify to Rockwell’s consummate ability to elevate commercial endeavors into the aesthetic realm. “No man with a conscience can just bat out illustrations," he stated of his work. "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 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’” (quoted in Judy Goffman, The Great American Illustrators, New York, 1993, p. 122).