Norman Rockwell's Cast Of Children Revealed
Ms. MARY WHALEN LEONARD: So much fun to see them, you know, photographs because it just - it captures just what Norman was seeing.
JACKI LYDEN, host:
Norman Rockwell's paintings are so ubiquitous, over 300 Saturday Evening Post covers spanning 47 years, that a certain rosy American narrative is considered Rockwellian: a couple out on prom night, a boy going off to war, an elderly lady saying grace in a diner with her grandson.
What most of us don't know is that for decades, Rockwell painted in minute detail from photographs he composed. He didn't click the shutter, but he directed action, props and people, hiring his friends and neighbors, even putting in himself and his family.
Mary Whalen Leonard looks at photographs taken for "The Gossip," in which a rumor flies around town. She knows half the people in its companion painting.
Ms. LEONARD: I love this picture. I grew up knowing several of these people. I always love to look for Mary Rockwell and I love to see Norman and Frank Hall and Georgie Zimmer.
LYDEN: Mary Whalen Leonard was only nine in 1952 when Rockwell asked her parents if she could pose for "A Day in the Life of a Little Girl," a beloved Saturday Evening Post cover.
Ms. LEONARD: So, indeed, my mother got me ready. And I remember there was a table that I could rest on and there was a pillow and he just said to me, now, crawl up there. We're going to put the blanket over you. Put your head in the pillow, and you show me how you look when you awaken in the morning.
LYDEN: Photo historian Ron Schick is the author of a new book "Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera."
Mr. RON SCHICK (Author, "Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera"): He didn't feel guilty for photographing some of these people. He felt guilty for using a camera at all. It was sort of a form of moralism for Rockwell. He really felt it was a kind of cheating. But at the same time, when once he made the switch, you know, he never looked back and he was never secretive about it. In fact, he even wrote an instructional book about how to follow his method, photography and all.
LYDEN: Head curator Stephanie Plunkett at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts paired the photos with the paintings they became and the similarities are fascinating.
Ms. STEPHANIE PLUNKETT (Chief Curator, Norman Rockwell Museum): When Rockwell was working, it was extremely common for illustrators to be using photography or certainly photo reference to capture what they needed to paint. Because, of course, many illustrators at the time were really working as narrative realists, so they needed to know exactly what things looked like. And they needed to capture things from perspectives that could not necessarily always be seen and held by the human eye.
LYDEN: Rockwell used several photographers.
Ms. PLUNKETT: One was certainly Gene Pelham in Arlington, Vermont. Bill Scoville was certainly a great help to him, as well as Louie Lamone here in Stockbridge.
LYDEN: But one of Rockwell's photographers was left out of the show by his own choice, and he would never refer to himself that way. Clemens Kalischer had a photography studio next to Rockwell's and slightly knew one of the men who took his pictures.
Mr. CLEMENS KALISCHER (Photographer): And one day he called me, he said, look, could you help me? I said, with what? Well, I photograph for Norman Rockwell and I have personal, mental problems and I'm very nervous. I can't do it. I say, yeah, well, what do you want me to do about it? Can you just sit there while I take the pictures? Yeah, I guess I could do this.
LYDEN: Clemens Kalischer is now 88. He escaped Nazi Germany as a child, studied in New York and he exhibits his photographic images around the world. After he came to Stockbridge in the '50s, the young photographer met Rockwell.
Mr. KALISCHER: So Rockwell said, oh, you're a photographer? You live here? Yes. Can I call you sometimes? I said, not really, because I work all over the country. I don't know when I'm here or not. And he was not my idol. I went to Cooper Union Art School and Norman Rockwell was not in favor among artists.
LYDEN: Kalischer still lives and works in downtown Stockbridge. This is the first time he'd spoken to an American journalist about his black and white Rockwell photos. Some he took for Rockwell, many others he took as a documentarian.
Mr. KALISCHER: This is the first group, if you can just flip through pictures I took of him.
LYDEN: So these are all photographs of Norman Rockwell.
Mr. KALISCHER: Yeah.
LYDEN: We're seeing him with his pipe in front of...
Mr. KALISCHER: Well, he had to do ads for pipes, you see?
LYDEN: Uh-huh. And in front of some sketches.
Mr. KALISCHER: Yeah. And here's his - this big projector. Big cameras stretch out and the projector projects my photograph. Oh, I said, but so what do you do with it? I trace it. I thought he just took the information to do his own thing. No. I said, oh, that's pathetic.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LYDEN: Kalischer said Rockwell was a commercial illustrator, an assessment Rockwell used himself. But for the photographic models, it's a different story. Rockwell directed their every arched eyebrow, tapping toe, the entire composition.
Ray Gunn descends from one of Stockbridge's two black families. His grandfather and Rockwell smoked pipes on the Gunn's porch.
Mr. RAY GUNN: Mr. Rockwell would come to grandpa's house with the sketches, especially during the time of integration and segregation and civil rights. He used my family all the time. The little girl that's being escorted to school by the U.S. marshals, "The Ruby Bridges Story," that little girl who's portraying Ruby is my cousin Linda.
LYDEN: Ray Gunn now works for the Rockwell Museum and he talks about role as a 13-year-old boy posing in 1967's "New Kids in the Neighborhood," a portrait of integration in Park Forest, Illinois.
Mr. GUNN: So, he's using my family members in these very controversial civil rights paintings. I'm in school saying, well, he just did me and my cousin Tracy in a painting that's called "New Kids." And we're being depicted moving into a neighborhood in Chicago. Well, what the heck they doing that for? You live in Stockbridge. I'm just telling you what the deal is.
LYDEN: By the 1970s, Rockwell was far more popular with the public than art critics. His style seemed hopelessly dated. Mary Whalen Leonard kept quiet about posing for Rockwell, even the famous paintings "Girl at Mirror" and "Girl with Black Eye."
Ms. LEONARD: A few times that I might've mentioned to somebody that I knew Rockwell, they just laughed and said, he's not an artist. It's just shear sentimentality and it's kitsch. And quite honestly, I didn't know what to say. And if anything, it was just a big hurt inside me because I loved him.
LYDEN: Clemens Kalischer, the photographer, was not surprised that Norman Rockwell was overlooked and he knew it.
Mr. KALISCHER: He smiled all the time in public. Yes, yes, yes to everybody. But underneath, I think he was lonely and bored and compulsive about having to do this over and over and over, the same stuff. But it's always, pump, smile, hi, how are you? Fine. Fine and dandy. Suddenly he took the door and slammed the door, totally out of character. I said, what's the matter? He said, oh, damn it, damn it, damn it with it all. Thirty-five years of Boy Scout calendars. I've had it. So I said, well, why don't you stop? I can't.
LYDEN: But Norman Rockwell clearly understood that photography was essential to him. Of his masterpiece, the 1950 "Shuffleton's Barber Shop," in which light falls through a door as the barber shop dwellers play music. Rockwell writes: There were details, accidents of light which I'd missed when I've been able to make only quick sketches of the painting. For example, where Rob Shuffleton hung his combs, the way light fell across the magazine rack, his moth-eaten push broom leaning against the display cases of candy and ammunition, a photograph catches all that.
But Clemens Kalischer says that after 40 years, the photographs had become a crutch.
Mr. KALISCHER: His wife was not an artist, but she painted all the time. And he would say, I don't know, Mary, she just sits down, takes a brush and paints. How does she do this? I said, why don't you do that too? He said, oh, I can't. I can't.
LYDEN: Now, Norman Rockwell is back in vogue. Art historians, curators and critics have reconsidered Rockwell's work, pointing out that Rockwell used light like many Dutch masters. He had an obsessive eye for detail and presented the human body in classic fashion.
Former child model Mary Whalen Leonard remembers seeing Rockwell's paintings at the Guggenheim.
Ms. LEONARD: What a thrill that was to see that Rockwell was beginning to gain some respect in this nation. I think it's very clear in the last 20 years something has happened. I think we'll find 200 years from now that Rockwell will probably be the artist that reflects the tone, the way of life.
LYDEN: Those quiet New England images of country doctors, a family road trip, the Thanksgiving dinner portray an America that can be regarded as enduring and sustaining. A Rockwell painting "Breaking Home Ties" recently sold for over $15 million. But photographer Clemens Kalischer won't be selling his photographic works of Norman Rockwell to the museum or anybody else.
Mr. KALISCHER: People say, you know how much money you can make with all these photographs that you have? I said, I am not part of this. It would be lying to myself that I'm profiting from something that I don't really like or approve of. Maybe a month before I die and I'm starving I may sell this stuff, bring me something to eat, but otherwise, no way. Nobody even knows I have them basically.
LYDEN: On the day that Norman Rockwell died, Clemens Kalischer slipped into his studio and took some photos: an easel, a pipe, the sun coming on to an unfinished painting. They're quiet and beautiful images. Kalischer contends the reason the painting on the easel was unfinished is because this time Rockwell was trying to paint without using photographs. It's almost a story a Rockwell painting might've told without making a distinction as to how he'd be regarded.
Meanwhile, the Norman Rockwell Museum will put 18,000 photographic images online early next year, a celebration of Rockwell's gifts as a director and artist with a vision.
LYDEN: You can see the photos that became Rockwell's illustrations on NPR's photo blog The Picture Show at NPR.org/pictureshow.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.