Thomas Buechner, a director of the Brooklyn Museum
in the 1960s, found a similar power in Rockwell’s work: “The point of these pictures is to communicate the emotion to the viewer so that he can either experience it himself or react to it as an outsider,” he wrote.
Take Rockwell’s 1951 canvas Saying Grace, perhaps his most famous work—voted by Post readers as their all-time favorite cover, and the painting that would later shatter Rockwell’s auction record in 2013. It depicts a curious scene in which an old woman and little boy pray in the middle of a rowdy diner. Strapping young men, who look like they have a rebellious side (one dangles a cigarette nonchalantly from his mouth, à la James Dean), watch inquisitively. “They’re looking on, they might be curious, they might not agree, but there’s still a dignity, a respect to their reaction,” explained Plunkett. In other words, Rockwell painted a world in which very different people were able to get along, or, at the very least, respect each other’s opinions.
Rockwell spent much of his time passionately observing people around him in New York, where he lived until 1939, and later, in Vermont and Massachusetts. He watched their daily routines, private rituals, and mercurial emotions, using it all as fodder for his paintings. He described his project as “showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed.”
While his paintings often contained elements of caricature, Rockwell also strove for authenticity, especially when it came to finding just the right subject. Often, he’d invite the strangers he observed into his studio to sit for him. “He has dragged people out of theaters, from behind store counters, out of trucks, and off tractors and persuaded them to pose for him,” Jarman chronicled. “He has deserted one of his own wedding-anniversary parties, which was being held in a New York restaurant, because he had spotted someone across the room who looked like a good model.”
Rockwell spent hours, sometimes days, with various sitters, directing them to pose or smile as he sketched or photographed them. Later, he’d combine these studies into intricate narrative compositions. This approach, in which Rockwell connected directly with the American people as part of his process, also extended to the act of painting itself. “I’m trying not to paint the head,” he once said. “I want to feel it. I don’t paint it, I caress it.”