Spielberg, Lucas Celebrate Rockwell's Iconic America

  • Detail of The Flirts by Norman Rockwell, 1941.
    Hide caption
    Detail of The Flirts by Norman Rockwell, 1941.
  • The Flirts by Norman Rockwell, 1941. Rockwell accentuates the humor in this fleeting encounter between two very different parts of American society. Owner Steven Spielberg comments that the men's glances are "totally innocent, completely moral," and "at the same time, just naughty enough" that you know they aren't "total squares."
    Hide caption
    The Flirts by Norman Rockwell, 1941. Rockwell accentuates the humor in this fleeting encounter between two very different parts of American society. Owner Steven Spielberg comments that the men's glances are "totally innocent, completely moral," and "at the same time, just naughty enough" that you know they aren't "total squares."
    Collection of Steven Spielberg
  • Shadow Artist by Norman Rockwell, 1920. This painting is very likely inspired by the pantomime shows that Rockwell attended as a child. Owner George Lucas was attracted to the painting for its cinematic qualities: a rapt audience in a dark room watching light move across the wall.
    Hide caption
    Shadow Artist by Norman Rockwell, 1920. This painting is very likely inspired by the pantomime shows that Rockwell attended as a child. Owner George Lucas was attracted to the painting for its cinematic qualities: a rapt audience in a dark room watching light move across the wall.
    Collection of George Lucas
  • "Merry Christmas, Grandma... We Came In Our New Plymouth!" by Norman Rockwell, 1950. Many companies were attracted to Rockwell's depictions of wholesome American values. This advertisement for the new Plymouth car has almost nothing to do with the car itself and could have been used for countless other products.
    Hide caption
    "Merry Christmas, Grandma... We Came In Our New Plymouth!" by Norman Rockwell, 1950. Many companies were attracted to Rockwell's depictions of wholesome American values. This advertisement for the new Plymouth car has almost nothing to do with the car itself and could have been used for countless other products.
    Collection of George Lucas
  • First Trip To The Beauty Shop by Norman Rockwell, 1972. Rockwell first conceived this image of a mother and daughter at a hairdresser's in 1918. For this 1972 painting, he tightened the focus to highlight the child's surprised expression at her newly adult hairstyle.
    Hide caption
    First Trip To The Beauty Shop by Norman Rockwell, 1972. Rockwell first conceived this image of a mother and daughter at a hairdresser's in 1918. For this 1972 painting, he tightened the focus to highlight the child's surprised expression at her newly adult hairstyle.
    Collection of George Lucas
  • Boy Reading Adventure Story by Norman Rockwell, 1923. This painting celebrates imaginative flight and fantasy, two things that George Lucas prized in his Star Wars series.
    Hide caption
    Boy Reading Adventure Story by Norman Rockwell, 1923. This painting celebrates imaginative flight and fantasy, two things that George Lucas prized in his Star Wars series.
    Collection of George Lucas
  • Polley Voos Fransay? (Soldier Speaking to Little French Girl) by Norman Rockwell, 1917. This is one of Rockwell's many World War I-era magazine covers, emphasizing the naivete of the American recruits abroad.
    Hide caption
    Polley Voos Fransay? (Soldier Speaking to Little French Girl) by Norman Rockwell, 1917. This is one of Rockwell's many World War I-era magazine covers, emphasizing the naivete of the American recruits abroad.
    Collection of George Lucas
  • Boy On High Dive by Norman Rockwell, 1947. This cover for The Saturday Evening Post is based on numerous photos of the artist's son.
    Hide caption
    Boy On High Dive by Norman Rockwell, 1947. This cover for The Saturday Evening Post is based on numerous photos of the artist's son.
    Collection of Steven Spielberg

1 of 8

View slideshow i

What do painter Norman Rockwell, and filmmakers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg all have in common?

All are commercial artists. They share a love of heroes, valor, humor, country and — of course — images that has earned them each a place in American popular culture.

All three have also come together for the July opening of an exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., that celebrates each of those things.

The show, "Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg," displays the filmmakers' admiration of Rockwell. Their collections of his work include covers he painted for The Saturday Evening Post magazine from 1916 to 1963.

George Lucas, Steven Spielberg i i

­­­After growing up with his images, filmmakers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have become avid collectors of Norman Rockwell's work. FotoBriceno LLC/Smithsonian American Art Museum hide caption

itoggle caption FotoBriceno LLC/Smithsonian American Art Museum
George Lucas, Steven Spielberg

­­­After growing up with his images, filmmakers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have become avid collectors of Norman Rockwell's work.

FotoBriceno LLC/Smithsonian American Art Museum

'He Captured The American Ideal'

These men who gave us Star Wars, Jaws, Indiana Jones, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Schindler's List, and E.T. have been working together on and off since the 1960s. Their friendship has carried over into the art they collect.

"We came from the film school generation," Lucas says, "and so we were all sort of partners in trying to break into the movie business. We all helped each other."

Lucas started buying Rockwell illustrations as soon as he could afford them. Soon Spielberg caught the bug. So far, they say they've managed to avoid competing for Rockwell's treasured pieces.

"We usually talk beforehand and we decide who gets it," Lucas says. "It's whoever wants it the most."

Both men grew up with Rockwell's deeply American Saturday Evening Post covers: a family Thanksgiving, children playing marbles, a little boy raking leaves with his grandfather or a little girl watching her mother primp at the dressing table — all iconic Rockwell images.

"He wasn't cynical. He wasn't mean-spirited," Spielberg says.

"He captured the American ideal of what we wanted to believe we were," Lucas says, finishing Spielberg's thought. "We weren't any better then than we are now, but by having the ideal out there — what we aspired to — it made it so that we could try to be more than what we were."

'The Heart Of Every Movie'

Lucas and Spielberg have hung Rockwell's pictures all over their homes, offices and in storage, but this is the first time they've seen 57 of them together in one place. Now gathered in "Telling Stories," their collections reveal the director's interest in themes of childhood, wonder, awe and the power of imagination.

Shadow Artist i i

Shadow Artist by Norman Rockwell, 1920. Collection of George Lucas/Smithsonian American Art Museum hide caption

itoggle caption Collection of George Lucas/Smithsonian American Art Museum
Shadow Artist

Shadow Artist by Norman Rockwell, 1920.

Collection of George Lucas/Smithsonian American Art Museum

In The Shadow Artist — a 1920 magazine illustration and part of Lucas' collection — Rockwell paints a white-bearded gentleman standing in profile against a wall that's bathed in light from an oil lamp. He makes a shadow puppet with his hands — a dog with an open mouth and perky ears. The shadow artist also has an audience.

"There are three small children, absolutely rapt, in the foreground," says American Art Museum Director Betsy Broun. "We only see the backs of their heads. The girl has a bright red bow; the middle boy has red suspenders; the boy on the right has hair going in different directions and great big ears."

And all of them are mesmerized by the magic the old man is making with his shadow.

"That magic," Broun says, "is at the heart of every movie."

Lucas says that's exactly why he bought The Shadow Artist.

"It's sort of the beginning of movies," he says. "It's using light and shadow to tell a story, which is what we do for a living."

Another Rockwell painting is also movielike. In the 1941 Saturday Evening Post magazine cover The Flirts, a pretty blond in a convertible waits at a stoplight. Next to her, hanging out of the window of an immense turquoise truck, a beefy driver picks the petals off a daisy as if to say, "she loves me, she loves me not."

"He looks at her with a nice smile on his face," says "Telling Stories" curator Virginia Mecklenburg. "He's not leery. He's just being a guy."

But the pretty blond stares snootily straight ahead and won't give the driver the time of day. It's funny in a gentle way — a Rockwell way.

The scene is reminiscent of something out of Lucas' 1973 film American Graffiti — although the painting is part of Spielberg's Rockwell collection.

"That certainly could be Richard Dreyfuss looking at Suzanne Somers down there — although she didn't have a convertible," he says.

Putting The Picture Together

Rockwell's job was to grab a reader's attention at newsstands that were crowded with magazine covers. You don't really linger in front of these paintings as you would with Claude Monet or Pablo Picasso.

Look Inside Rockwell's Process

There's nothing to puzzle out in Rockwell — no mysteries to be solved. Rockwells are quick shots, achieved with great skill and told in a single frame.

"There is a detail and a care and an attention to the way he puts the picture together," Broun says. "He would cast the picture by interviewing friends and neighbors until he found someone who looked just right."

Then the artist hunted down the right costumes for them to wear — the little girl's red ribbon, the blond's white hat — and the right props — a 1930s radio microphone, an Underwood typewriter. Then he gathered his costumed cast together for a photograph. Finally, back in his studio, Rockwell created his painting.

Considering how carefully Rockwell crafted his stories, it's no wonder movie directors like Lucas and Spielberg would see him as a kindred spirit.

The Sweet Compassion Of Norman Rockwell

Rockwell's paintings have achieved iconic status in the U.S., but that doesn't keep people from knocking his work. He's been called saccharine, sentimental and soppy, and many museums still don't take him seriously. But Lucas says that very sweetness is what sets Rockwell apart.

"In the art world it's called corny and naive," Lucas says. "You can take the corny and naive out of the American spirit — out of these images — and you end up with a lot of what is going on today, which is the same ideas, only without any of the heart, without any of the human compassion."

Rockwell painted the world as he wanted it to be, full of optimism and wonder. The stories may not have been real, but that doesn't mean they weren't worth telling.

Spielberg and Lucas say Rockwell told the stories we needed to hear — now, perhaps, more than ever.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.