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Norman Rockwell's Art Told Stories About American Life

Norman Rockwell in his studio, about 1970

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SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I’m Shirley Griffith.

STEVE EMBER: And I’m Steve Ember. Norman Rockwell was one of the most popular American artists of the twentieth century. His drawings and paintings appeared in advertisements and on magazine covers. Today we tell about an exhibit of his work at the Smithsonian American Art Museupolleym in Washington, D.C.


SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: The exhibit is called "Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg." It shows how the artist’s work influenced two of America’s most famous filmmakers. The exhibit also shows how Nstarorman Rockwell’s art was deeply influenced by movies.

STEVE EMBER: Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are directors and producers best known for making the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" movies. Both filmmakers have been collecting Norman Rockwell’s paintings since the early nineteen eighties. This is the first time their private collections of fifty-seven artworks have been gathered together and shown publicly.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Norman Rockwell drew covers for the Saturday Evening Post magazine for nearly fifty years, starting in nineteen sixteen. Some of his art also illustrated stories inside magazines. Each of his drawings and paintings tells a story. They often tell everyday stories, like the experience of a young girl having her first haircut at a beauty shop. Or, the happiness of a teacher whose students have surprised her with a birthday celebration.

Rockwell’s works often express a sense of warmth, innocence, humor or fun. They show an idealized version of American families, children and life in small towns.

STEVE EMBER: Some works have a political message. In nineteen forty-three Rockwell was searching for a way to help the American war effort during World War Two. He had an idea after seeing his neighbor speak during a town meeting. Everyone at the meeting disagreed with the neighbor, but had permitted him to express his views.

Rockwell decided to represent this moment in his painting "Freedom of Speech." This painting and three others in the series were shown around the country as part of a government effort to sell war bonds. The paintings helped raise over one hundred thirty-two million dollars in one year.


SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Virginia Mecklenburg organized this Smithsonian exhibit. Here, she talks about why Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were so influenced by Norman Rockwell’s work.

VIRGINIA MECKLENBURG: "Both Lucas and Spielberg see Rockwell ultimately not just as an illustrator, not just as a maker of pictures, but a teller of visual stories. George Lucas in fact said when we did an interview with him that he thought one of the reasons he was so comfortable when he got into the movie business [was] because he already knew how to tell a story visually from having looked at Norman Rockwell’s covers."

"Polley Voos Fransay? (Soldier Speaking to Little French Girl)," 1917, from George Lucas' collection
"Polley Voos Fransay? (Soldier Speaking to Little French Girl)," 1917, from George Lucas' collection

STEVE EMBER: One Norman Rockwell painting from nineteen seventeen is called "Polley Voos Fransay?" It shows a tall young American soldier standing in the countryside of France. Next to him is a very young French girl in a red and white dress and wooden shoes. She is looking up at him with a questioning look as he struggles to communicate with her in his poor French. This image appeared on the cover of "Life" magazine during World War One.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: A nineteen twenty-two painting is called "The Stuff of Which Memories are Made." Rockwell created it as an advertisement for a light made by the General Electric company.

In this work, a mother sits as her three children say their prayers before going to bed. They are in a dark room. But a General Electric light on a nearby table coverds them with a soft warm glow. George Lucas owns both of these paintings.

VIRGINIA MECKLENBURG: "One of the things that George Lucas loves about Rockwell is what Rockwell tells us about our culture, about our society, and about who we are as people. Many of his pictures have to do with children growing up and all of the funny things that happen."

STEVE EMBER: Steven Spielberg has praised Norman Rockwell for showing a sense of community and civic responsibility in his paintings.

VIRGINIA MECKLENBURG: "He owns several pictures of Boy Scouts, Boy Scouts in action, Boy Scouts as sort of semi-heroic figures. As young men ready to take on whatever cause needs to be done"

STEVE EMBER: Steven Spielberg says Rockwell was the great American storyteller. The artist was able to tell an entire story using a single image.

"And Daniel Boone Comes to Life on the Underwood Portable," 1923, from the collection of Steven Spielberg
"And Daniel Boone Comes to Life on the Underwood Portable," 1923, from the collection of Steven Spielberg

The first Rockwell work Spielberg ever bought is a nineteen twenty-two painting called "And Daniel Boone Comes to Life on the Underwood Portable." It shows a young man hard at work on his typewriter. Above his head is an image of the American pioneer Daniel Boone. The young man is thinking about the story he is writing.

Steven Spielberg says this painting hung in his office and helped him whenever he was having trouble writing down his ideas for a movie.

VIRGINIA MECKLENBURG: "When he is starting to write a movie, he says he just sits there at the typewriter waiting for a little thought bubble to emerge over his head that will finally get his fingers dancing across the keys. So it is a very evocative painting for him. But I think it is also a wonderful demonstration of Rockwell's early fascination with the way movies look. The whole idea looks like a movie screen. It looks like a film playing out over the writer’s head."


SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Norman Rockwell enjoyed movies and the movie industry. He spent some time in Hollywood during the nineteen thirties and forties. He designed posters for several movie production companies and became familiar with the industry.

In many ways, Rockwell worked like a movie director as he prepared for his paintings. He invited friends, neighbors or even strangers to sit for him in his studio. He chose special clothing for them to wear and objects to use that would help tell the story in his drawings.

STEVE EMBER: Rockwell worked with his models. He showed them how he wanted them to stand, look and act, much like how a movie director works with his actors. The artist also paid careful attention to the expressive qualities of light.

Rockwell photographed his models and then made drawings from those photographs. Sometimes he would take the arm or nose of one person and draw it on another person.

Or, he might take a photograph of a woman sitting in a chair, then later draw her sitting in a car. He did not draw from his imagination. Every detail he drew came from real life.

"Movie Starlet and Reporters," 1936, Spielberg collection
"Movie Starlet and Reporters," 1936, Spielberg collection

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: The movies are a subject of several of his paintings. One example is his nineteen thirty-six painting "Movie Starlet and Reporters." It shows a beautiful actress surrounded by a group of male reporters. The model that experts believe Rockwell used for this work was trying to become a movie actress.

Her image appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Two weeks later the woman signed a deal with a movie production company and was on her way to Hollywood.


STEVE EMBER: Norman Rockwell’s works have been extremely popular, but they also have their critics. Some people criticize his art for only showing a false or very limited image of America, one that is white and middle-class.

They say his art rarely showed the difficulties within American society, such as social injustice, racism and poverty. However, Rockwell did pay attention to these subjects much later in his career.

Some critics believe his works were too safe. They never forced viewers to think about new ideas or try new activities. However, other art experts say these criticisms may be true, but that art does not have to be about reality.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: One work by Norman Rockwell shows that he was very much aware of the changes going on in American culture during the nineteen fifties and sixties.

By the early nineteen sixties, many magazines were having difficulty competing for advertising because of the growing popularity of television. Some people at the Saturday Evening Post where Rockwell worked believed his art was too old-fashioned for modern times.

STEVE EMBER: Rockwell’s nineteen sixty-two painting "The Connoisseur" seems to express the artist’s questions about traditional and modern art.

The work shows the back of a well-dressed older man at a museum. He is standing in front of a bold and colorful painting similar to those created by the abstract-expressionist artist Jackson Pollock. We cannot see the face of this man. But it is possible that Rockwell was showing himself in the process of facing the future of modern art.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Norman Rockwell died in nineteen seventy-eight. Steven Spielberg has said that Rockwell would have been a great and famous filmmaker if he had made movies. But Spielberg says he is thankful that Rockwell painted pictures so that he could influence filmmakers to be better artists.


STEVE EMBER: Our program was written and produced by Dana Demange with reporting by Susan Logue. I'm Steve Ember.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: And I’m Shirley Griffith. You can see some of Norman Rockwell’s paintings on our website, Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.