Selection and rejection
Robert Genn

January 7, 2011

Dear Rodney,

Norman Rockwell never called himself an artist. When I met him in his studio some
years ago, he made it clear to me that he was an "illustrator." I told him I loved
cruising his paintings up close because his surfaces were so interesting, and that
made him a "painter." He told me he didn't think painter was a bad word. 

Over the years Rockwell has come under fire for his use of photographs. Norman
Rockwell: Behind the Camera shows how Rockwell set up models and employed
professional photographers to give him big black-and-white reference. That's when
Rockwell's eye for selection and rejection took over. It's the sort of thing all
of us need to do whether we are looking at a picture of a human figure, the human
figure itself, or a tree. 

"The Runaway," (1958) was set in a coffee shop with a little boy, a cop, and a
soda jerk. Some pens in the soda jerk's pocket coincide with the boy's nose. Out!
The burly cop is beefed up into a real heavyweight for greater contrast with the
puny kid. The kid's arms are pulled in to show he has something to hide. Rockwell
knew that in silent media, body language counts. The photo also shows the
background to be cluttered and indistinct. In the painting it's simplified with
the addition of a wall-radio and a blackboard menu--two icons of American life.
We've put the painting and the photo he used at the top of the current clickback.
I invite you to cruise for yourself. If it were your painting, you'd probably find
other things you might have changed. 

Some selections and rejections can appear to be arbitrary, perhaps merely the
result of whim or preference. The brim of a hat may be wider or smaller; a hat may
be on or off, or even replaced with another hat. This individual choice is the
personality of art, no matter how it's derived. Rockwell's personality inclined
him to show a loving, benign, optimistic America, where good things happened
regularly. The great artists, illustrators or not, leave a trail of their own

Best regards,


PS: "Even if it isn't an ideal world, it should be. So I painted only the ideal
aspects of it--pictures in which there are no drunken slatterns or self-centered
mothers. Only foxy grandpas who played baseball with the kids, and boys who fished
from logs and got up circuses in the backyard." (Norman Rockwell) 

Esoterica: In my book, it's the cultured ability to select and reject that makes
or breaks a painter--and it mostly comes from within. Sometimes a second opinion
can be valuable. When I visited Norman Rockwell he was painting a portrait of
Richard Nixon. Quite openly he surprised me by asking if his depiction of Nixon
was "not threatening enough." Intimidated, I missed an opportunity. I told
Rockwell I thought his President was just fine the way he was.