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Spielberg, Lucas share love of stories

Norman Rockwell’s Happy Birthday Miss Jones is in collections held by both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

Norman Rockwell’s Happy Birthday Miss Jones is in collections held by both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A surprising painting hangs in the office of Hollywood director Steven Spielberg. It shows a small boy cowering at the end of a diving board. The artist is Norman Rockwell, whose old-fashioned world of the 1940s and ’50s might seem far removed from Spielberg’s glamorous, high-tech universe. Yet Spielberg sees himself in this portrait, saying it exactly captures the way he feels in the moments before he agrees to direct his next film.

Spielberg is an avid collector of Rockwell’s work, along with George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars and Indiana Jones. For the first time, they have lent part of their collections for the exhibit Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

Rockwell (1894-1978), is seen in a new light through the eyes of these two fans. They find in him a kindred spirit and an inspiration, a master storyteller who worked much like a movie director. Both are struck with Rockwell’s rare ability to tell a story in one frame. Their selections emphasize this skill and also give new insight into the collectors.

Born in New York City, Rockwell left high school to study art. His talent was quickly recognized – by age 18 he was the art director of Boy’s Life, the magazine of the Boy Scouts of America. Saturday Evening Post, the most popular magazine of the era, bought their first cover from him just a few years later. Over almost five decades, he created 321 Post covers, reaching as many as 30 million people each week. He also did covers for Look magazine and book illustrations and art for many classic advertisements. He mirrored the experiences of ordinary Americans as no one has done since. “Even if the drawings seem old-fashioned, the emotions will be familiar to anyone today,” George Lucas says.
Although his vignettes often used humour, it was Rockwell himself who declared, “A cover should be more than just a one-line joke.” The exhibit describes how Rockwell composed his paintings, auditioning his models, determining their poses and facial expressions, selecting their costumes and carefully choosing props that would illustrate the personalities and circumstances of each story. He even acted out the parts so his models would understand what he wanted to convey. “I tell the story through the characters,’ he said. Rockwell often did dozens of sketches before the final painting that became a magazine cover. He would often take a photograph of the picture after he had set it up as he wanted, so that he could sketch it over and over until it pleased him.

When the Boy Scouts approached Rockwell to paint pictures for their calendar in 1929, he donated the pictures to thank them for hiring him for their magazine when he was a teenager. Spirit of America, a painting of a Boy Scout with many great Americans of the past, hit home to Stephen Spielberg. Spielberg’s first venture into movie making was an 8mm film made to earn a Scout merit badge in Scottsdale, Ariz. The laughter and applause it received set the course of his future.
Norman Rockwell was fascinated with Hollywood, and did a number of paintings of starlets and actors during the 1930s. Many of these are in Spielberg’s collection, including a famous portrait of Gary Cooper as The Texan, showing how makeup, including even lipstick and rouge, are needed to create a cinema cowboy.
Rockwell’s influence on the American public clearly can be seen in the reaction to these covers. The day his Movie Starlet and Reporter cover appeared featuring Mardee Huff, the star-struck daughter of a friend, three movie companies wired the Post for her name and within two weeks she was under contract to 20th Century Fox. Macy’s sold 500,000 replicas of the dress worn by the model in Woman at Vanity, one of the scenes in the George Lucas collection.
Lucas, who grew up in a small California town he calls “an American Graffiti world,” was strongly attracted to Rockwell’s “coming of age” paintings, reminding him of his youth. He owns both a drawing and the finished painting of First Trip to the Beauty Shop, showing a young girl’s delight at her new, grown-up haircut. Boy Reading Adventure Story, showing how words can conjure a picture, is another of his favourite works.
“Rockwell did many paintings of someone entertaining others, which is just what I’ve wanted to do,” Lucas says in the film accompanying the exhibit. Among the examples in his collection are Shadow Artist, showing children being entertained by shadow puppets, and The Toy Maker, a nostalgic reminder of a time when grandpas delighted little ones by making toys by hand.
The Rookie with a gangly recruit arriving in the dressing room of the Boston Red Sox, features several members of the actual 1957 team who had travelled to Rockwell’s home in Stockbridge, Mass. to pose for him. The largest permanent collection of his work and his actual studio can be seen at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.
Lucas and Spielberg selected only one Rockwell subject in common, Happy Birthday Miss Jones, showing a delighted teacher coming in to find the class has prepared a birthday surprise. The details tell a story – fallen chalk reveals that the children had to rush back to their seats from writing birthday greetings when they heard Miss Jones approaching. The eraser on the head of the class clown indicates who was most likely to have written “Happy Birthday, Jonesy” on the blackboard.
Lucas owns the drawing and Spielberg the more expensive painting of Miss Jones, which Lucas jokes is typical. Both began buying some years back when Rockwell was out of favour with critics, dismissed as sentimental and trivial. As in their moviemaking, the two men were ahead of their time. Today Norman Rockwell’s talent has been rediscovered in a big way; a recent painting at auction fetched $15.4 million US.
Travel Arts Syndicate
Art online
Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Smithsonian American Art Museum, 8th and F streets, NW, Washington, D.C. An excellent podcast is available on the museum website, narrated by curator Virginia Mecklenberg, featuring Spielberg and Lucas, and showing dozens of the paintings on view. The published program is also available at


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