August 19, 2010

Norman Rockwell’s Paintings

What I’m Reading Today: Revising a novel, which is both better than reading and harder.

I don’t know if you’d seen the news recently about the Norman Rockwell “Telling Stories” exhibit at the Smithsonian that included works from collectors George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. You can see images from it here.

I’ve always loved Norman Rockwell. Every year, my calendar above my desk at work is either Norman Rockwell, what’s-his-name who paints women in landscapes with clouds (starts with an M?), or Ansel Adams.

Why do I love Norman Rockwell? Because his paintings are stories. Nothing new in asserting that. But his paintings are not only stories; they are stories that manage to be very particular but also universal at the same time.

I think fiction writers have a lot to learn from this. The details in NR’s paintings are fabulous. He uses the exact right detail, but they are subtle too. It’s the accumulation of those details that tells the story. The expressions on people’s faces, the body angles, what they’re wearing. Desire and pain and anger and pleasure writ large.

And he didn’t “make things up” out of his head; he painted recognizable people and things. He used models from real life and exaggerated them just a bit. He didn’t paint the idea of a blue dress - he painted the exact replica of one particular dress.

I guess this is at the heart of his appeal and how his paintings tell a story. In addition to setting and character, they have conflict, desire, and action/plot. You can tell that NR understood and loved these people deeply and desperately.

Doesn’t it just make your heart hurt a little to see his paintings?

Questions of the Day: What can fiction writers take away from the other arts? Do you it’s a fallacy to say that artists feel the world more deeply? Or is it that they just pay closer attention?


David Abrams said...


You're exactly right about Rockwell's storytelling talents. In fact, he's a better "writer" than some writers I've read. I've always loved his sense of whimsy, too. His story-paintings aren't just splashes of sentimentality (as some may criticize him for), they're precise portraits of The Way We Live.

And yes, an hour at the National Gallery of Art sitting in front of Bierstadt, Moran and Copley will fill me with enough inspiration for a dozen short stories and two or three poems.


P.S. The "M" artist you're thinking of is probably Maxfield Parrish.

Tamara said...


Yes! A better writer than some writers :-) I agree ~ I don't find him sentimental, but rather specific and universal at the same time.

Yes! Maxfield Parrish. For the life of me, I couldn't remember his name.