In October, our creative team visited Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the adopted hometown of Norman Rockwell and the site of Norman Rockwell Museum. Founded in 1969 with the help of Norman and Molly Rockwell, the Museum holds the world’s largest and most significant collection of Rockwell art, archival materials, and memorabilia, along with more than 20,000 works by noted American illustrators.
We sat down with Museum Director/CEO Laurie Norton Moffatt to discuss the influence of 20th-century American artist Norman Rockwell, illustration art, creative process, and why the Museum is bringing Rockwell’s work to the blockchain. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
ICONIC: Let's start at the beginning. Who is Norman Rockwell?
LAURIE NORTON MOFFATT: Norman Rockwell is one of the most significant and beloved American artists of the 20th century. He created art for nearly seven decades, a period brimming with major societal shifts and technological developments, from the tumult of World War II to the moon landing and Civil Rights Movement. His work was a visual record of the times, seen on the covers of magazines, in stories inside of them, in advertisements for products, in books, on album covers, and more.
While the subject matter might have been specific to a cultural moment, the ideas and ideals inside of his illustrations are as relevant today as they were then. They are timeless. I think this can be attributed to Rockwell’s genuine curiosity about human nature, about what people were thinking and feeling. He was an acute observer of everyday life.
I: We refer to Norman Rockwell as an illustrator, but he was also a classically trained painter. What is the difference between illustration and painting as it relates to Rockwell's practice?
LNM: It’s important to remember that all illustrators are artists, but not all artists are illustrators. Illustrators have a very specific mission: to create a work that communicates to a broad group of people, whether it's to tell a story, to invite us to open the cover of the magazine, to persuade us to purchase a product, or, like with the Four Freedoms paintings, to inspire us to our highest ideals.
An illustrator’s cultural influence is far different from that of a fine artist who paints a work of art that holds personal meaning with the hope that it will resonate with someone. Illustrators really understand the charge of communication. The purpose is to create a compelling image that mobilizes viewers to some kind of action or engagement.
Illustration is ubiquitous. It’s all around us. So people experienced Rockwell’s work in their everyday lives—whether while going about their work, in a doctor's waiting room picking up a magazine, or finding the weekly subscription of the Saturday Evening Post in the mail. There is a sort of dichotomy in his work because while his images were so widely disseminated, they also had this ability to connect with the viewer in a personal way.
I: At its core, "Studio Sessions" is an exploration and celebration of Rockwell’s in-depth creative process. What makes Rockwell’s process compelling?
LNM: As a classically trained artist, Rockwell knew how to create a compelling composition. Through various techniques and approaches, he knew how to move our eye around the image, from one subject to the next, inviting us into the story. While we think we're looking at the whole painting, our eyes move from one aspect to another, piecing that story together.
Rockwell was adroit at capturing what I think of as liminal moments, the moment between this and that. The process of beginning and ending. He somehow takes you right into the middle of that emotion, right into the pivotal moment of the picture.
Rockwell was methodical and meticulous. He would typically start with a very small portrait sketch, a thumbnail sketch. It might just be three by three inches. From there, he would choose his models and characters. He would costume them, pose them, and photograph them. Then, when he had captured the expressions and positions he wanted, he would sit down and draw the picture. He might cut a hole in the drawing, paste a fresh piece of paper behind it, and tuck in a new reference photo featuring a new model, a new pose, or a new expression. When that drawing was completed satisfactorily, he would begin to think through the color palette. And when that was done, he would photograph that drawing and project it with a reverse projector called a bowel opticon.
I: The collection includes five of these reference photographs you mention—and, for each of them, it is the very first time they have been offered to the public in small editions. Can you tell us more about their importance within Rockwell’s practice?
LNM: Norman Rockwell left a tremendous body of work in the Museum's care, ranging from his business correspondence and fan mail to the very detailed working materials he used for creating his art. Among those were his reference photographs.
Rockwell posed and coached his models almost as a stage director. These poses were photographed, and he used the resulting images to help him draft a picture. He often tucked reference photos onto the side of the frame. You'll see, for example, tack holes in his drawings or on the side of the canvas. Eventually, when the drawing was finished to his satisfaction, he would start on the final oil painting.
The reference photographs give us a peek not only into Rockwell’s imagination and artistic intent but also into subjects that were culturally important at the time. We've been working toward making this archive accessible for many years, but this specific material has rarely been seen. Issuing it in limited edition print and digital versions is a wonderful way for people to see a new element of Rockwell and to understand his process as a working artist, which was both complex and meticulous.
I: Tell us about the characters and situation depicted in "Waiting for the Art Editor"…
LNM: You see in Waiting for the Art Editor that Rockwell uses contrast. He has a man posing as a young artist and another as a seasoned artist. The young artist is sitting in his seat and he's nervous. He has his portfolio at his feet. You can tell by his expression and his posture that he hopes he's going to be successful. But as your eye is pulled into the art editor's office, in the recesses of the painting, you get the sense of a very experienced art editor who has met hundreds of artists and, who you know, will quickly make decisions about if he’s going to take a chance on this artist. Maybe the older artist is losing his touch and the younger artist will be preferred. There are all these ideas captured in the painting that we're invited to think about both because of our eyes moving around the work and because of the visual contrast between the characters.
I: In the collection, we have two photographs of Norman Rockwell sitting in the position of the two characters of "Waiting for the Art Editor". Was taking on the roles of his characters a common practice?
LNM: Norman Rockwell often placed himself in his paintings, not unlike, say, Alfred Hitchcock with a cameo portrait of himself in the final work. More frequently, though, Rockwell acted out the pose and expressions that he wanted his models to take on. So, in the reference photos for Waiting for the Art Editor, for instance, we see him playing both the younger artist and the older artist. We see him differing in expression, differing in posture, demonstrating eagerness and excitement, apprehension in one, regression in another. He would help the models adopt the expressions and poses he wanted to convey because those poses communicated a lot about how the viewer would ultimately interpret and engage with the painting.
We have to remember, too, that Waiting for the Art Editor is also considered an autobiographical work, chronicling Rockwell’s own evolution as an artist. From the eager young artist who walked into the editor’s office at 18 years old, looking ahead to his future, to an older and experienced artist, reflecting on an incredible career. It’s a scene that reflects Rockwell’s personal evolution as an artist, honors previous generations of influential creators that came before and celebrates the arrival of a new generation.
I: Looking at his process, we have come to understand that there is a certain cinematic quality to it—the character development, the staging, finding the perfect window into the heart of a story. In addition to painter and illustrator, would you say he was also a creative director?
LNM: I think it’s a wonderful notion to think of Norman Rockwell as a creative director, because the process of making a painting was about thinking about a script, a narrative, casting the characters, if you will, choosing costumes, directing his models how to pose, where to gaze their eyes, almost stop motion. The process of photographing was similar too. What went into the storytelling and the making of each painting required a thoughtful creative director process, if you will. Not dissimilar to what an art editor might do, who's working with an artist to coach a little different angle on a painting, a little different take on a subject. It is certainly a fair analogy to think of him as a creative director. But not all creative directors can be genius artists. Rockwell was both, which is a very distinguishing aspect of him.
I: What do you think Norman Rockwell would think about this project and, in particular, about bringing his work to the blockchain?
LNM: Rockwell remained relevant over six and half decades in a rapidly changing world. He was always curious about the next invention, the next big idea. In the last years of his life, the late sixties and early seventies, far before computers were mainstream, we see him working on studies about the impact of computers on society.
I think he would be intrigued by the digital world. I think he’d be amazed at the speed and volume of our consumption of imagery. I would imagine he would bring and extend his innate curiosity to understand the world around him to the movements of today, to how information is disseminated, shared, and even protected.
Blockchain technology as a new media platform is yet another way to share and expand the reach of illustration, images, art, and information—a way that allows individuals to connect with it in a uniquely personal way. I think that would be very interesting to Norman Rockwell. It’s a growing interest to collectors today.
Rockwell’s illustration art has consistently been reproduced in many different forms. People enjoy his original art, but he is most known for the illustrations in magazines and in books that were widely disseminated. We're excited to deliver his art through limited-edition prints and NFTs, engaging new generations in this new way of publishing.
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978). Waiting for the Art Editor, c. 1960. Graphite on Paper. Norman Rockwell Art Collection Trust © 1960. Norman Rockwell Family Agency. All rights reserved.
Portrait of Laurie Norton Moffatt. Courtesy of Iconic.
Portrait of Norman Rockwell, looking through the window. Courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Family Agency. All rights reserved.
Studio Sessions: Waiting for the Art Editor—Character Studies Set (Installation view)
Louis 'Louie' J. Lamone (1918-2007). Waiting for the Art Editor, c. 1960. Reference Photos. Norman Rockwell Museum Digital Collection © 1960. Norman Rockwell Family Agency. All rights reserved.
Louis 'Louie' J. Lamone (1918-2007). Waiting for the Art Editor, c. 1960. Reference Photo. Norman Rockwell Museum Digital Collection © 1960. Norman Rockwell Family Agency. All rights reserved.
Norman Rockwell on set. Courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Family Agency. All rights reserved.
Studio Sessions: Waiting for the Art Editor—Study in Color (NFT Expression)
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978). Waiting for the Art Editor, c. 1970. Color Study, Oil on Board. Norman Rockwell Museum Collection © 1970. Norman Rockwell Family Agency. All rights reserved.