How Norman Rockwell Used Photographs to Create His Famous Paintings: See Side-by-Side Comparisons

More than 40 years after Nor­man Rock­well’s death, the ques­tion of whether his paint­ings are real­is­tic or unre­al­is­tic remains open for debate. On one hand, crit­i­cal opin­ion has long dis­missed his Sat­ur­day Evening Post-adorn­ing visions of Amer­i­can life as sheer­est fan­ta­sy. “A lit­tle girl with a black eye, an elder­ly woman say­ing grace with her grand­son, a boy going to war: Rock­wellian scenes rep­re­sent a cer­tain sen­ti­men­tal Amer­i­ca — an ide­al Amer­i­ca, or at least Rock­well’s ide­al,” says a 2009 NPR sto­ry on his work.

On the oth­er hand, if Rock­well’s admir­ers give him a pass on this sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty, his detrac­tors often turn a blind eye to his obvi­ous tech­ni­cal mas­tery. Say what you will about his themes, the man might as well have been a cam­era.  Indeed, his process began with an actu­al cam­era. Accord­ing to that NPR piece, he “used pho­tos, tak­en by a rotat­ing cast of pho­tog­ra­phers, to make his illus­tra­tions — and all of his mod­els were neigh­bors and friends,” res­i­dents of his small town of Stock­bridge, Mass­a­chu­setts.

The cam­era­men includ­ed a Ger­man immi­grant named Clemens Kalis­ch­er: “An artist-pho­tog­ra­ph­er him­self, Kalis­ch­er was at odds with the trac­ing tech­niques and sac­cha­rine sub­ject mat­ter in Rock­well’s work. After all, Rock­well nev­er paint­ed free­hand, and almost all of his paint­ings were com­mis­sioned by mag­a­zines and adver­tis­ing com­pa­nies.”

But “although he may not have clicked the shut­ter, Rock­well direct­ed every facet of every com­po­si­tion,” as you can see by exam­in­ing his paint­ings and ref­er­ence pho­tos togeth­er, fea­tured as they’ve been on sites like Petapix­el.

At Google Arts & Cul­ture, you can scroll through a short exhi­bi­tion of Rock­well’s late work on race rela­tions in Amer­i­ca that reveals how he had not just one but many pho­tographs tak­en as source mate­r­i­al for each paint­ing, which he would then com­bine into a sin­gle image. This qua­si-cin­e­mat­ic “edit­ing” process brings to mind the “sto­ry­board­ing” of Edward Hop­per, who stands along­side Rock­well as one of the most Amer­i­can painters of the 20th cen­tu­ry.

But while Hop­per gave artis­tic form to the coun­try’s alien­ation, Rock­well — whom his­to­ry has­n’t remem­bered as a par­tic­u­lar­ly hap­py man — cre­at­ed an “Amer­i­can sanc­tu­ary oth­ers wished to share.” And though nei­ther Hop­per nor Rock­well’s Amer­i­ca may ever have exist­ed, they were craft­ed from the pieces of Amer­i­can life the artists found every­where around them.

via Petapix­el/Messy­Nessy

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Nor­man Rock­well Illus­trates Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer & Huck­le­ber­ry Finn (1936–1940)

NASA Enlists Andy Warhol, Annie Lei­bovitz, Nor­man Rock­well & 350 Oth­er Artists to Visu­al­ly Doc­u­ment America’s Space Pro­gram

Nor­man Rockwell’s Type­writ­ten Recipe for His Favorite Oat­meal Cook­ies

Edward Hopper’s Cre­ative Process: The Draw­ing & Care­ful Prepa­ra­tion Behind Nighthawks & Oth­er Icon­ic Paint­ings

Yale Launch­es an Archive of 170,000 Pho­tographs Doc­u­ment­ing the Great Depres­sion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (9)
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  • Norma Torchio says:

    He real­ly was a genius!

  • Tim Anderson says:

    Mr Rockwell’s sub­jects were not just from his home­town. His paint­ing The Coun­ty Agent were of a fam­i­ly liv­ing in north east Indi­ana in the coun­ty of Jay. It was also done from a pho­to tak­en by Mr Rock­well him­self. Thank You

  • Valeria Anderson says:

    I love news about my favorite artists! Thank you❤

  • Gabbie says:

    I have always and will always be a huge fan of Nor­man Rock­well. He pre­sent­ed a fan­ta­sized ver­sion of life but one that could be achived if only we were kinder to one anoth­er.

  • Sandra Anderson says:

    I lived in that era but was very young. It would be very hard for peo­ple on today’s tech­ni­cal world to under­stand those times with­out the com­plex­i­ties of today. It was not per­fect but Rock­well did paintre­al­is­ti­cal­ly as the time pre­sent­ed them but with a humor­ous vein. It was a far more ide­al and calmer world with­out “things” that causedan­gst and chaos. I know. I lived it. I miss the Amer­i­ca I used to know. It was in gen­er­al a kinder world and there real­ly were dear hearts and gen­tle people…like the song.

  • John Hopkins says:

    While I agree that Rockwell’s illus­trat­ed world was too sen­ti­men­tal to have ever been real, I quib­ble with the state­ment that Hopper’s wasn’t. What scene in any Edward Hop­per paint­ing actu­al­ly strains creduli­ty? I enjoy Rock­wells work, but it has the authen­tic­i­ty of an 80’s sit­com. Hopper’s paint­ing sen­ti­men­tal­ize noth­ing.

  • Susana Isaacson says:

    I love all of Rock­well’s pic­tures of Boy Scouts! I have a few prints in my house.

  • Joseph A Pappa says:

    I love his work.He was a genius, cre­ative. I am a water­col­or artist. What do l
    need to do to get per­mis­sion to copy one of his paint­ings, to use for a
    Christ­mas card

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