Strength in Reserve: Posing for Rockwell

by Mark Richard Leach, Executive Director, SECCA

In 1962 at the age of 8 in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, I was introduced to Norman Rockwell’s universe. My mother’s friend was the artist’s accountant. Rockwell had just been commissioned by the Department of the Army to create an image for a nationwide billboard campaign to promote the Army Reserve. He was looking for a child from the surrounding area with red hair and freckles. My mom’s friend, in whose care I was placed one afternoon, was walking with her two children and me in Stockbridge. It was there that the artist saw me. That afternoon, my parents received a telephone call from the artist, who asked if they would grant him permission to paint me. So the creative journey began.

Strength in Reserve, the caption and narrative underpinning for the billboard, boldly sets the tone for the homespun patriotic picture and leaves no doubt what the outcome of the disagreement between the subjects will be. Outwardly the composition features a standoff between two young males, one of them holding a baseball that seems to belong to the other. But another compositional element is integral to the story. An anonymous adult’s forearm, clad in a black suit with a crisply starched shirt cuff, descends into the composition. The gentleman’s hand clasps the child’s hand in a symbolic show of strength.

The sitters gathered in the artist’s studio. I arrived dressed in khakis, a white button-down oxford shirt, and a mint green V-neck sweater. I also remember wearing my favorite belt with Indian beads and patterns attributed to the Mohawk people. Another child my age was there, too. I don’t remember his name, but I knew that this young man, dressed much differently from the way I was, had a purpose. As Rockwell painted him, he jutted forward in the composition, straight into my personal space, behaving like a defiant bully, determined not to surrender the baseball. The hand is my father’s. Often Rockwell could be the master of understatement. It wasn’t the adult’s literal presence in the composition, but rather only his subtle implication, that sets the viewer’s imagination to work and adds richly to the story.

The artist was warm and attentive, carefully arranging his subjects and, if only so slightly, teasing the precise facial expressions from us. I had never been asked to “hold a pose” before. The session seemed to last an eternity. Because I could not move, my senses became heightened. I remember an immense light-filled room, heavy with the scents of linseed oil and turpentine. The smells were intoxicating and were familiar to me because my father, a tradesman and electrician, regularly used those substances to paint a house, clean brushes, and the like. I also noticed large north-facing windows that made the space seem otherworldly in size, by contrast to the more modest panes and lighting conditions in my childhood home.

I vividly remember a camera and multiple shutter releases. The artist moved with the camera to vantage points I can only surmise would reveal especially important anatomical information. The ambient natural light revealed spatial or other dimensions critical to the artist’s quest for a preternaturally compelling visual conceit. His camera could capture these ephemeral moments, enabling him to make of the resulting snippets the stunning representational portrayal he sought.

Several months after the initial session, the artist invited us to pose again. My guess is that he took this step to confirm from life what he had captured using photography and sketching in the initial pose. I have no recollection of the conversation except that, as before, the artist took care in staging, lighting, and such other compositional necessities. Before my parents and I left Rockwell’s studio for the last time, the artist presented me with a check for $20 as a token of his appreciation.

One afternoon while I was playing in the yard, my mother beckoned to me from the kitchen window. She told me she had an errand to run and asked if I wanted to go for a ride with her in the car. We headed to uptown Pittsfield, to the corner of Fenn and First streets. Conveniently, there was a red light at the intersection! She pointed upward and said, “Mark, there you are on the billboard just ahead—and so big!” I’ll never forget the rush of excitement and pride.

Over the years, I’ve thought often about Norman Rockwell’s painting, the billboard’s story line and its subtext, and the three magical characters with whom the artist conspired to evoke in all of us a deep sense of patriotism, a feeling of self-determination, and an abiding acknowledgement that together we can tackle even the greatest of challenges. These things and so many more are the remarkable characteristics of a great American artist and the art that flows from a talent such as his.

American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell is on view at the NCMA until January 30, 2011. For more on Rockwell’s use of photography, see Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera, on view at the Brooklyn Museum until April 10, 2011.

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