Thursday, August 9, 2012


The Gossips
Oil on canvas
Painting for The Saturday Evening Post cover
March 6, 1948
Ken and Katharine Stuart Collection

The Gossips cover was the most popular Rockwell Post cover in thirty-three years and sold the most magazines in five years. Rockwell had the idea for it twenty years earlier but he couldn’t quite get the ending until he thought to have the subject of the gossips (posed for by Rockwell) hear the story about himself at the end of the circle. Thousands of letters were sent to the Post asking what the gossip was they were passing along. An answer was never given. In an interview in December of 1948, Rockwell remembered that the woman who posed for the first lady in the picture, the one who had started the gossip, was still a little peeved at him. Not all of his subjects were critical. One model told a reporter, “It’s more fun posing for him than going to the movies. Norman keeps you in stitches with his funny stories.”

SEP Cover

The Gossips photo

All above images
From Norman Rockwell Art Collection Trust

The Gossips (drawing)
Pencil and charcoal study for painting
Norman Rockwell Art Collection Trust

Photography has been a benevolent tool for artists from Thomas Eakins and Edgar Degas to David Hockney. And to illustrators, always on the lookout for better ways to meet deadlines, the camera has long been a natural ally. But the thousands of photographs Norman Rockwell created as studies for his iconic images are a case apart. A natural storyteller, Rockwell envisioned his narrative scenarios down to the smallest detail. Yet at the easel he was an absolute literalist who rarely painted directly from his imagination. Instead, he first brought his ideas to life in studio sessions, staging photographs that are fully realized works of art in their own right. Selecting props and locations, choosing and directing his models, he carefully orchestrated each element of his design for the camera before beginning to paint. Meticulously composed and richly detailed, Norman Rockwell’s study photographs mirror his masterworks in a tangible parallel universe. Photography opened a door to the keenly observed authenticity that defines Norman Rockwell’s art. And for us today it is a revelation to discover that so many of his most memorable characters were, in fact, real people.
Known for his illustrative manner Rockwell was employed for over four decades by American magazine The Saturday Evening Post; merging the boundaries of painting and illustration he also sold works of art, his style between the two differed little. The Gossip is a manipulation of Rockwell’s talent of facial expression, despite only revealing heads he is able to perfectly create the persona of each and every one of the conjured figures. So expressive is each face one can completely imagine the rest of the body; such attention to detail is paid, each character is given a token item of dress, a hat, glasses, reflecting of character. Hands of course are used, consistently betraying conversation as they exclaim throughout the chain of Chinese whispers that ends amusingly right where it started. As with much of Rockwell’s art, the image illustrates an aspect of life, humorous and identifiable we immediately connect with the painting, as was of course the advertisement-fuelled aim.
It seems Rockwell had a neighbor who started a disagreeable rumor about him. What can one do about a nasty gossip? Well, if you are a famous illustrator, you can paint a cover about it. It started with just a couple of people, and then it just grew, leaving Rockwell in need of more models. The result, said the editors, is that we see “almost the entire adult population of Arlington, Vermont.” As he worked on the project, the artist worried that his friends and neighbors might be offended, so he included his wife and himself. Mary Rockwell is second and third in the third row, spreading the rumor via rotary phone. In the gray felt hat in the bottom row is, of course, the artist himself (you can click on the image for a close-up). You’ll notice the lady at the end is the one at the beginning who started the rumor, and our friend Rockwell appears to be giving her a piece of his mind. Apparently, the neighbor who started the rumor in real life never spoke to Rockwell again. We have a feeling it was no great loss. The lesson here is: don’t anger someone whose Saturday Evening Post covers are viewed by millions.

1 comment:

Yvette said...

I loved this post so much I shared it on my blog with a link back to you as well as to the Norman Rockwell Museum.

I'm so glad I found your wonderful art blog. I have lots of exploring to do.