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American Art

Inside the Childhood Imagination with Norman Rockwell's "The Little Model"

Throughout his celebrated career Norman Rockwell was renowned for his unique ability to capture the spirit of daily American life with wit and warmth. Among the hundreds of artworks he created as illustrations for famed publications including The Saturday Evening Post and Collier's, his images of children were particularly treasured. Replete with imagination, innocence, mischief and humor, such works embodied Rockwell at his best. Sotheby’s upcoming American Art sale (23 May, New York) features two works from opposite ends of Rockwell's artistic career – The Little Model of 1919 and 1964's Little Girl Looking Downstairs at Christmas Party – that together reflect his enduring interest in the themes of childhood and adolescence while illustrating his stylistic evolution. 

Painted when Rockwell was just 25 years old, The Little Model is among the earliest images he painted on commission for a prominent American publication – it was the March 29, 1919, cover of Collier's magazine. Here Rockwell depicts a young girl imitating the elegant pose of a fashion model whose image she studied from a well-worn poster that adorns the wall behind her. 

Rendered primarily in a limited palette of black, white and red, The Little Model exemplifies Rockwell’s early aesthetic and technique, featuring the vignette-style format and more painterly manner of execution – evidence of the influence of Joseph Christian Leyendecker, the most celebrated American illustrator of the time.

Painted 45 years later, and at the height of his success, is Little Girl Looking Downstairs at Christmas Party (1964). The work was a cover illustration for McCall’s, a publication that billed itself as the "First Magazine for Women." The painting shows a young girl seated on the darkened stairs of her home as she watches a brightly lit Christmas party below. 

By the time Rockwell made Little Girl Looking Downstairs at Christmas Party he had transitioned to a more naturalistic, almost cinematic style than what is demonstrated in The Little Model, influenced partly by his incorporation of new technologies into his artistic process. Rockwell had begun to use the 35mm camera as a tool for capturing models poses as early as 1937.  

To achieve this impressive sense of naturalism, Rockwell positioned the young model at the top of the stairs in his own home and assembled a group of friends and neighbors downstairs. After perfecting the composition his photographers would capture the elements of the scene at Rockwell’s direction. Back in the studio, the photos would be combined with his preliminary sketches to create a series of small-scale color studies and experiments, to which he added elements and details in order to create the final composition. 

Despite adaptions of technique and certain stylistic shifts, perhaps what is most striking about The Little Model  and Little Girl Looking Downstairs at Christmas Party are their thematic similarities – both speak to an interest in the childhood imagination that recurred throughout Rockwell's œuvre

In The Little Model, viewers are invited into the protagonist's imagination as she plays a game of pretend. She has done her best to emulate the stylish attire of the model on the wall behind her, substituting her sophisticated fur stole for a tattered shawl and her chic feathered cap for a straw boater hat that has seen better days. Little Girl Looking Downstairs at Christmas Party meanwhile takes the perspective of the young girl watching grownup festivities well past her bedtime. While inviting the viewer to imagine the girl's fantasies of her own yet-to-come adult life, the viewer is simultaneously pulled back into his or her own childhood. As curator and historian Virginia Mecklenburg observed, “We take on the persona as well as the viewpoint of a child; Rockwell emotionally transports us to a moment of childhood that erases subsequent experience."1

It was this unique ability to effortlessly transport the viewer into an unfolding narrative and to awaken his viewer's imagination in paintings such as The Little Model and Little Girl Looking Downstairs at Christmas Party that made Rockwell a defining artist of the 20th century. 

Notes: 

1. as quoted in Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steve Spielberg, New York, 2010, p. 183.

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