Telling Stories the Rockwell, Lucas and Spielberg Way
An exhibit of paintings by Norman Rockwell, on loan from the personal collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, explores how the iconic artist inspired the superstar filmmakers.
Besides fame and commercial success, what do superstar filmmakers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have in common with the late Norman Rockwell, America’s favorite illustrator?
Some 600,000 people—including from some 40 countries—recently learned that the answer is “a lot,” and that it has to do with a combination of imagination, patriotism, humor, nostalgia, entrepreneurship, and—most significantly—great story-telling. All three of these influential artists are masterful storytellers. Rockwell entertained and inspired via traditional oils and drawings while Lucas and Spielberg are doing the same for today’s generations via the medium of blockbuster, award-winning films.
Recently, over six months, a diverse audience of seniors, baby-boomers and students flocked to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in downtown Washington, D.C. to view another kind of blockbuster—“Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg,” the first major exhibit to explore in depth the connections between Rockwell’s iconic images of American life and movies. The exhibit ended in early January.
According to Smithsonian organizers, Lucas and Spielberg recognized “a kindred spirit” in Rockwell’s work, which was “poignant and playful, heartfelt and humorous.” The exhibition featured 57 original Rockwell drawings and paintings. There have been many public showings of Rockwell’s work over the years, but what made this exhibition special was the fact that all of the works were on loan from the personal collections of Lucas and Spielberg and had rarely been seen by the public.
Rockwell’s India Connection
Norman Rockwell, about 1950.
Norman Rockwell Museum, Licensed by Norman Rockwell Licensing, Niles, IL
Norman Rockwell loved to travel and was curious about different peoples and cultures, but most of his work focused on domestic U.S. scenes of so-called “everyday America,” or were portraits of famous Americans. He did, however, make at least two trips to India. In 1962, the artist was in New Delhi to sketch and photograph then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru for a portrait which ran as a Saturday Evening Post cover on January 19, 1963. According to the December 12, 1963 United States Information Service publication The American Reporter, Rockwell said he admired Nehru as a great humanist and said, “I love India, especially her people, and everything they stand for.”
Another India-related Rockwell painting, “The Peace Corps in India,” showed a young, female, American Peace Corps volunteer teaching science to five curious Indian school students. Also, under commission from Pan Am airlines to create an advertising series in the 1960s, Rockwell visited Calcutta and 15 other cities during an around-the-world trip.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum was the only venue for the exhibition. It helped fuel a reappraisal of Rockwell’s remarkable work and a discussion of American values—past, present and imagined. It also highlighted the Smithsonian’s ability to reflect America’s rich cultural heritage and provide an unparalleled experience to museum visitors.
Among the thousands of exhibition visitors was India-born Suchrita Maitra, a former American Center staffer in Kolkata and now a librarian with the Arlington, Virginia public library in suburban Washington, D.C. “It was a treat to visit the Rockwell exhibition at the Smithsonian,” she told SPAN as she showed off some of the library’s numerous Rockwell biographies and art books. “Rockwell’s images from American life told stories close to one’s heart. I learned so much about this famous illustrator, who was more of a storyteller than a painter. Every illustration by this artist was worth more than a thousand words.”
Lucas and Spielberg freely admit that while growing up in the 1960s they were heavily influenced by Rockwell, whose voluminous work included illustrations, magazine covers, greeting cards, calendars, advertisements and even a cameo role in a cowboy movie. Although based in New England, Rockwell liked to visit Hollywood, on occasion designed movie posters and said that if he had not become an illustrator he would have liked to have been a film director.
Rockwell’s art and the films of Lucas and Spielberg have things in common. They evoke love of country, small-town values, children growing up, unlikely heroes, acts of imagination and life’s ironies. Lucas has spoken of Rockwell’s ability to tell a story—much like a film director. In an educators’ guide used in connection with the exhibition, the “Star Wars” filmmaker observed: “Every picture [shows] either the middle or the end of the story. You can see all the missing parts…because that one frame tells everything you need to know. And, of course, in filmmaking we strive for that. We strive to get images that convey visually a lot of information…. Norman Rockwell was a master at that. He was a master at telling a story in one frame.”
Virginia M. Mecklenburg, senior curator and organizer of the exhibition, explains that Lucas, Spielberg and Rockwell perpetuate ideas about love of country, personal honor and the value of family in their work. “With humor and pathos, they have transformed everyday experiences into stories revealing the aspirations that have sustained Americans through good times and bad,” she says.
Rockwell was certainly not without critics. Many intellectuals and abstract artists considered his work propaganda about so-called traditional American values and more commercial than artistic. They snickered at his mass appeal; his sentimentality; his all too perfect view of how Americans lived; and his illustrations advertising everything from JELL-O and Kellogg’s cereal to McDonald’s hamburgers and Underwood typewriters.
Spielberg, like his close friend Lucas, has defended the illustrator: “[Rockwell’s images] symbolized…what America held the most dear…. He really captured society’s ambitions and emotions…” he said in an interview with filmmaker Laurent Bouzereau in 2008. Rockwell “pushed a benign but important agenda of a kind of community…a kind of civic responsibility, and patriotism. He was really one of the greatest Americans that this country has produced....”
Born in New York in 1894, Rockwell dropped out of school and began creating highly successful commercial art as a 22-year-old in 1916. He continued producing work celebrating America almost right up until the time of his death in 1978 at age 84.
Rockwell had a long association with the Boy Scouts, and for more than 50 years, contributed to the Scout calendar. But he remains best known for painting 323 covers for The Saturday Evening Post magazine, which during its heyday—long before television and the Internet—was avidly read by millions of Americans and which Rockwell considered “the greatest show window in America.” He was associated with that publication for over 50 years, and then with another popular, general interest publication, Look magazine, for another 10 years.
During the latter part of his career, Rockwell produced some notable works on political and social change themes, including the civil rights movement and President Kennedy’s New Frontier administration, the U.S. space program, the war on poverty and the Peace Corps.
His famous “Portrait of John F. Kennedy” twice graced the cover of Look—on April 6, 1963 when Kennedy was president and then on December 16, 1963 in memoriam after JFK’s assassination. One of Rockwell’s most powerful social commentary works—“The Problem We All Live With”—was produced for Look in 1963. It showed Ruby Bridges, a young, black girl, being escorted by four U.S. marshals on a historic walk to integrate her New Orleans school.
In 1977, President Gerald Ford awarded Rockwell the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, in recognition of his “vivid and affectionate portraits of our country.” The following year, Rockwell died in his Stockbridge, Massachusetts home and studio, where the Norman Rockwell Museum exists as a trust to preserve his legacy.
Each filmmaker was so influenced by Rockwell that each began, on his own, to seriously collect the artist’s work starting in the late 1970s and to make movies that captured universal truths about Americans and that showed that ordinary people can become unlikely heroes.
Lucas, who grew up in Modesto, a small town in central California, has explained in an interview with Bouzereau and Mecklenburg: “All of the things that were in Rockwell’s paintings were part of my life. What he did was document what life was like then, and that’s what I tried to do in ‘American Graffiti.’ I wanted to show a uniquely American mating ritual of the ’60s, to show how boys related to girls. It was all done through cars, and it was a particular kind of social culture, and that [film] is a direct descendant of Rockwell.”
Spielberg has revealed that he was so impressed by Rockwell’s “Freedom from Fear” work that he borrowed the idea for his film “Empire of the Sun.” That Spielberg production re-created a memorable “Freedom from Fear” scene of parents safely tucking their children into bed. Rockwell was inspired to draw the original by President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” State of the Union speech to the U.S. Congress in 1941. Rockwell’s interpretations of Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear were enormously popular with the public during the difficult World War II period.
One of the most popular works in the Smithsonian exhibition, “Boy on High Dive,” showed a frightened boy high atop the diving board trying to get up the courage to take the plunge. The classic 1947 painting normally hangs prominently in Spielberg’s office, where he has said it inspires him every day to take risks with new ventures.
American society has changed profoundly since Rockwell’s heyday and even since Lucas and Spielberg began making films and collecting art. The country has become more diverse, and the arrival of color photography and television and pop culture influences like Andy Warhol drastically reduced the demand for Rockwell-style work.
But thanks to the recent efforts of the Smithsonian and the generosity of two of the world’s most creative filmmakers, some of Rockwell’s original work has become more accessible. That’s a good thing. It has meant more people can smile, gain strength, think about values, and perhaps even dream up new stories to share.
Mike Anderson, a retired U.S. diplomat, lives in Washington, D.C.