Service of the Story Behind the Picture

March 11th, 2021

Categories: Art, Artist, Arts

Norman Rockwell self portrait. Photo: painted.com

I love to read captions in museums with nuggets of information beside objects and pictures. It was from such a label by a pair of gloves at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y. that I learned, decades ago, that FDR’s father, James Roosevelt I, was considerably older than his mother Sara–26 years in fact. Captions of pictures with no information other than the artist’s name and date irritate me, especially if the picture goes by “Untitled.”

“Bright Future for Banking” Photo: theknow.denverpost.com

Stories behind pictures, an artist or illustrator are fun to read. James Barron wrote such a piece in The New York Times: “A Model and Her Norman Rockwell Meet Again.”

Charlotte Sorenson, an octogenarian living in Boulder, Colo., was 15 when she posed for a Rockwell illustration “Bright Future for Banking,” that he created in around 1955 for a bank ad. She is in a white cap and gown, front, right, in the photo at the right. The picture was published inside the Saturday Evening Post, not on its cover where his most iconic work appeared. Sorenson recently saw the illustration in a gallery ad because it is for sale–more about that shortly.

His models, regardless of the destination of the work, most often were his Stockbridge, Mass. neighbors. Sorenson told Barron “‘It was quite common to be sitting somewhere or walking somewhere, and he would spot you and in his mind he had some painting that he was thinking of, so he would ask you or send somebody to ask if you would come up to his studio.’” While she posed alone schoolmates surrounded her in the illustration. To name a few she identified “Carrots,” for her red hair and two Normans. She admitted she was disappointed that the art didn’t appear on a cover.

Barron wrote: “Rockwell’s studio on Main Street had a plate-glass window and was nicely situated for people-watching. Sorenson remembers that it was across the street from one important local hub, the drugstore, and next to another, the Western Union office.”

Photo: thebark.com

She doesn’t remember much about the sitting. Stephanie Plunkett, the deputy director and chief curator of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge said that a studio assistant took photographs of the models in the studio, one-by-one. Rockwell directed the shoots. “He thought of himself as a movie director casting a role,” she said. He gave the models a coke and paid them $5 to $10 for a 20 minute session, reported Barron.

Art critics were not kind to Rockwell in the day, their disdain vividly expressed by the word “treacly.” According to Barron, a Time Magazine critic wrote in 1943 about a series “The Four Freedoms”  that Rockwell “would probably be incapable of portraying a really evil human being, or even a really complex one — perhaps even a real one.”

However period magazine readers loved his work and today his fans pay dearly for originals. “Bright Future for Banking” is for sale for $885,000 at the M.S. Rau gallery in New Orleans. It was in a Rau ad that Sorenson saw it again. Barron quoted prices of other Rockwell originals from $46 and $8.45 million in 2013 to $15.4 million in 2006 and $1.9 million in 2017. Remember that the bank ad picture was not on a cover which is reflected in the price.

I always loved the American scenes and characters Rockwell depicted even though they were of a life far from mine growing up in NYC. The Pollyanna in me delights in happy endings. Life is complicated enough that I don’t feel everything must capture challenges and a sad side.

I enjoyed my visits to the Rockwell Museum in its original spot at Rockwell’s home and studio in midtown Stockbridge as well as in its new much larger location outside of town. Have you been? Do you read captions in museums? Do you have a story about a favorite picture, sculpture or artist? If funds were no issue, is there an artist whose work you’d enjoy buying for your home or office?

Photo: smithsonianmag.com

 

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3 Responses to “Service of the Story Behind the Picture”

  1. EAM Said:

    EAM on Facebook: If I’m feeling ambitious, I do read the captions and I used to love Phillipe de Montebello’s narration of the MET’s exhibits on audio.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:

    EAM,

    Oh yes! I forgot to mention audio tapes. I’ve heard some wonderful ones not only at the Met but at the National Gallery in Washington. As for captions, I don’t read every one in an exhibition but am often rewarded by the ones I do.

  3. Lucrezia Said:

    Someone would have done the public a favor by throwing that Rockwell critic out the window! Both Rockwell and his younger contemporary, Edward Hopper captured a vanished, but treasured moment in American history, which many of us geezers still remember in one form or another.

    Art is elusive, and interpretation highly personal. Tastes and interpretations change. I couldn’t stomach Wassily Kandinsky as a young adult, only to surprise myself when able to reach an understanding and enjoyment years later. Critics should be ignored, unless one spinelessly elects to follow the crowd. Listen to no one and be the happier for it!

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