DescriptionNorman Rockwell (American, 1894-1978)
Study for Triple Self Portrait, 1960
Oil on photographic paper laid on panel
11-1/2 x 9-1/4 inches (29.2 x 23.5 cm) (sheet)
Signed and inscribed lower right: NR / My best / to Henry Strawn / Cordially Norman Rockwell
Private collection, Georgia.
Visual Arts Center of Northwest Florida, Panama City, Florida (and elsewhere), "In Search of Norman Rockwell's America," June 12-July 10, 2011.
The present work is an oil study for Norman Rockwell's Triple Self-Portrait, the artist's self-described "masterpiece". Here, the artist, with his back to the viewer and gripping his signature pipe, renders a grisaille image of himself on canvas while studying his reflection in a mirror. The painting electrified the cover of the February 13, 1960 Saturday Evening Post, which debuted the first installment of Rockwell's memoir, My Adventures as an Illustrator. A carefully orchestrated marriage of image and text, the issue hyped the interior article "America's Best Loved Artist Finally Tells His Own Story." Through the Triple Self-Portrait, Rockwell was thus constructing his identity for a public audience. Was he the premier realist painter of the twentieth century? Was he the recorder of an idealized American middle class of dutiful Boy Scouts, nurturing mothers, and hardworking grandparents? Or was he all of this--and perhaps something more?
Scholars have variously interpreted the Triple Self-Portrait as Rockwell's presentation of his multiple selves as an artist. Rockwell's son writes that the portrait, in capturing his father's different personas, embodied the very essence of his realist art, simultaneously innocent and sophisticated: "the slightly awkward figure almost crouched in front of the painting with a touch of the comic; the intensely serious face looking in the mirror with eyes obscured by the reflection of light on his glasses; and the outgoing, confident and friendly face of the drawing on the canvas. . . . We are not allowed to see the artist in one simple image, but fractured into a sequence of figure, mirror image, and slightly artificial self-image. . . . On the one hand, the picture is straightforward, showing the artist painting in his studio. On the other hand, the painting is a careful construct made up of a gradually developed idea followed by meticulous execution" (P. Rockwell in M. Hennessey, Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, Atlanta, 1999, pp. 76-8).
During the 1950s, as Abstract Expressionism claimed center stage in the art world, critics were dubbing Rockwell's paintings as commercial, conservative, and kitschy. The art historian Michele H. Bogart discusses the Triple Self-Portrait as underscoring Rockwell's identity struggle between "high artist" in the European tradition-symbolized by the copies of self-portraits by Durer, Rembrandt, Picasso, and van Gogh tacked to the upper edge of the canvas-and "low artist" for the American people-symbolized by the eagle with stars-and-stripes shield atop the mirror (R. Halpern, Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence, Chicago, 2006, p. 47). Writer Richard Halpern further emphasizes Rockwell's conflicted attitude toward the high art establishment: "The device of the artist reflected in the mirror clearly refers in a general way to works such as Velasquez's Las Meninas. And Rockwell's posture echoes (in a slightly off-kilter way) that of the artist in Vermeer's The Art of Painting. . . . [Rockwell] is having a joke at his own pretensions. Likewise, in the postural reference to the artist in Vermeer's [painting], the tilt of Rockwell's body is exaggerated and awkward as if to suggest the resemblance and cancel it at once. . . . 'Gosh,' it seems to say, 'I'm not really one of those great artists. I'm just a regular guy-like you!'" (Halpern, pp. 47-8).
During the early 1960s, shortly after completing Triple Self-Portrait, Rockwell began showing his (surprisingly) liberal political hand in works tackling current events. Shifting from his bread-and-butter nostalgic images, he depicted such topical issues as race riots and desegregation in the South, space exploration, heated presidential elections, and the Peace Corps' fight against worldwide poverty. Scholar Richard Halpern points out that in Triple Self- Portrait, Rockwell may be hinting at smoldering social problems, soon to combust. Here, a wispy trail of smoke from discarded pipe ash rises from a paper-filled wastebasket by the artist's foot. In addition, topping the easel like a finial is the antique fireman's helmet that Rockwell actually owned, a reminder of the fire that had destroyed his studio in 1943. Is artist Rockwell, his glasses fogged over, blind to the possible conflagration about to start beside him? Or, more likely, is he telling his audience that he is ready to comment on controversial, incendiary topics-that he is more than an illustrator of white, middle-class values of family, faith, community, and economic prosperity?
The present work, a preliminary study for Triple Self-Portrait, points to Rockwell's systematic, painstaking method of completing a painting. For his magazine covers, he first rendered 3"-square concept sketches, which he shared with editors for feedback. During the mid-1930s, black-and-white photography replaced these small sketches: serving as a virtual film director, he would stage sitters and props in a given setting and instruct a photographer to capture various angles. Next, he made a large charcoal drawing of the composition, resembling the grisaille portrait on the easel in Triple Self-Portrait, which approximated the size of the finished painting. To work out the exact palette, he painted a preliminary study like the present lot-often directly over a photograph-in a smaller, 11 x 9" "cover size" so that he could visualize the effect of the image on the newsstand. Finally, he reproduced the charcoal drawing on canvas by using transfer paper. Rockwell's perfectionist fussing over every detail in his paintings suggests that he had a particular story to tell about himself in Triple Self-Portrait: a master realist with ties to both high and low art, who ultimately appealed to and challenged his audiences.
The completed work currently resides at the Norman Rockwell Museum, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
Panel measures 15 x 13 inches; there appears to be no major visible condition issues to note; under UV light, there appears to be no inpaint. framed under glass. Framed Dimensions 17.75 X 15.5 Inches
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