Discover Norman Rockwell's Reference Photos For His Most Famous Paintings

Editorial Feature

Get an insight into the artist's incredible attention to detail

New York City-born Norman Rockwell worked as an artist and illustrator, and became famous for his powerful reflections on American culture. For the majority of his career he was most recognized for his ongoing cover illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post, and the continued work he did for Boy Scouts of America working on publications and calendars for them. It was only years later, after the Second World War, and after he left The Post, that Rockwell began receiving more attention for his paintings. This was due to his choice of subject matter becoming more serious and politicized, such as his series on racism for Look magazine.

Rockwell’s paintings are examples of narrative art, meaning he told rich stories by depicting a particular moment or sequence of events. His style leaned more towards Realism, a mid-19th century artistic movement characterized by subjects painted from everyday life in a naturalistic manner. This was at odds with the art trends of the time, which saw artists and collectors favoring Abstract Expressionism—where true-to-life depictions were abandoned and spontaneous, mark-making was embraced. Rockwell resisted pressure from critics to change his style and instead focused on new ways to develop his style.

A crucial part to his creative process was the use of reference photos to help with compositions and proportions of his subjects. Rockwell would set up these photos in his studio or on location and place people and props where he wanted them and get a photographer to take the pictures. He then worked from these, pasting them together to create his preferred composition.

Rather than use professional models, the artist often asked friends and family to be the stand-ins. Every element in their positioning, the clothes they were wearing posture, and hand gestures were all there to tell as realistic a story as possible.

Diving through the archives of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, dozens of these old reference photographs can be found. Here we pair a selection of his reference photos with some of his best known works to get more of an insight into the process of one the most important 20th century painters.

The Problems We All Live With, 1964

The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell (From the collection of Norman Rockwell Museum)

This is one of Rockwell’s most well-known images and is considered to be an iconic image of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. The paintings depicts Ruby Bridges, the first African-American child to desegregate the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana during the New Orleans school desegregation crisis in 1960.

In the artwork, she’s on her way to school but because of the threats of violence against her, she is escorted by four deputy US Marshals, whose faces have been cropped out. Our focus is on Ruby, so the white protesters are out of shot but on the walls racial slurs and the remnants of thrown food can be seen, creating a powerful and evocative painting. The piece was part of Rockwell’s first assignment for Look magazine and it received a mix of praise and criticism, highlighting the clashing attitudes of modern America at the time.

In Rockwell’s photos we can see he used different models for the marshals and even got them to stand on planks of wood to get the feet in the right position for walking. The most important model, the girl who was to represent Ruby Bridges, was 8-year-old Anita Gunn. Rockwell had been recommended Anita by the girl’s grandfather, who was a smoking buddy of Rockwell, but it was only by chance he ran into her on the street one day when she was crying. The artist asked why she was upset and Anita explained that she wanted to take violin lessons but there was no money for them. Rockwell suggested that if her mother approved and Anita would model for him, he would pay for her lessons. $25 dollars later, Anita was immortalized in one of the most recognizable paintings in the world.

Anita Gunn, reference photo for The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell (From the collection of Norman Rockwell Museum) 

US Marshal pose, reference photo for The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell (From the collection of Norman Rockwell Museum)

Thrown tomatoes, reference photo for The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell (From the collection of Norman Rockwell Museum)

US Marshal pose, reference photo for The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell (From the collection of Norman Rockwell Museum)

US Marshal pose, reference photo for The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell (From the collection of Norman Rockwell Museum)

New Kids In The Neighbourhood, 1967

New Kids in the Neighborhood by Norman Rockwell (From the collection of Norman Rockwell Museum)

This painting is a continuation of similar themes explored in The Problems We All Live With, in this case suburban integration in Chicago’s Park Forest community. The artwork depicts two African-American children and three white children staring at each other, with a removals van and various household items in the back and foreground.

Rockwell carefully shows the viewer what unites the children (their age, love of baseball and animals) and what seemingly divides them (their race, maybe even their parent's attitudes). Having children as the focus, Rockwell uses them as a sign of hope, a wish for them to see what they have in common as more important than their differences.

In this selection of reference photographs, Rockwell has composed separate images of the children, the removals guy, the cat and dog, and even of the furniture pictured, highlighting his incredible attention to detail. The models, like in many of his paintings, are local townspeople Rockwell met or were recommended by friends, and some models are even relatives of Anita Gunn from the previous painting.

Reference photo for New Kids In The Neighborhood by Norman Rockwell (From the collection of Norman Rockwell Museum)

Reference photo for New Kids In The Neighborhood by Norman Rockwell (From the collection of Norman Rockwell Museum)

Reference photo for New Kids In The Neighborhood by Norman Rockwell (From the collection of Norman Rockwell Museum)

Reference photo for New Kids In The Neighborhood by Norman Rockwell (From the collection of Norman Rockwell Museum)

Reference photo for New Kids In The Neighborhood by Norman Rockwell (From the collection of Norman Rockwell Museum)

Contact sheet for New Kids in the Neighborhood by Norman Rockwell

Murder In Mississippi (Southern Justice), 1965

In this powerful painting, Rockwell portrays the events of June 21, 1964 where three young men working to register black citizens to vote as part of the Freedom Summer in Mississippi were brutally murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan. On the night of their murder, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner had heard of a Klan attack against the black community and of arson at Mount Zion Church, so drove to the site. On their return, they were taken into custody by Deputy Sheriff Price for accounts of speeding and supposedly setting the fire. After releasing them later that night, Price tailed them. Once outside of town, Klansmen intercepted them and abducted them using Price’s car as well as their own. The men were driven to a remote location and shot point blank. Their bodies were then taken to a farm of one of the Klansmen, dumped into a dam site and covered by dirt pushed over them by tractor. Their disappearance sparked national outrage and an investigation was launched. 44 days later the bodies of the men were discovered.

This painting was another commission for Look magazine and was originally conceived as a horizontal composition to run across two pages. The young men would be on the left page and Deputy Price and the Klan members would be on the right. In the end the officer and the gang were removed and replaced by menacing shadows on the right-hand side. Rockwell received the go ahead and proceeded to paint the final scene based on his sketch but Look art director Allen Hurlburt chose to publish the original sketch instead.

The reference photos for this painting feel haunting as Rockwell’s models cling to each other in one image and in another a model lays motionless yet slumped awkwardly on the floor. The two other shots, one of the artist himself with blood smeared on his white shirt and a light test for the menacing shadows in the image, demonstrate how important the artist felt it was to get the composition of this painting perfect.

Reference photo for Murder in Mississippi by Norman Rockwell (From the collection of Norman Rockwell Museum)

Reference photo for Murder in Mississippi by Norman Rockwell (From the collection of Norman Rockwell Museum)

Reference photo for Murder in Mississippi by Norman Rockwell (From the collection of Norman Rockwell Museum)

Reference photo for Murder in Mississippi by Norman Rockwell (From the collection of Norman Rockwell Museum)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Share this story with a friend
Translate with Google
Home
Explore
Nearby
Profile