What do painter Norman Rockwell, and filmmakers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg all have in common?
All are commercial artists. They share a love of heroes, valor, humor, country and -- of course -- images that has earned them each a place in American popular culture.
All three have also come together for the July opening of an exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., that celebrates each of those things.
The show, "Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg," displays the filmmakers' admiration of Rockwell. Their collections of his work include covers he painted for The Saturday Evening Post magazine from 1916 to 1963.
'He Captured The American Ideal'
These men who gave us Star Wars, Jaws, Indiana Jones, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Schindler's List, and E.T. have been working together on and off since the 1960s. Their friendship has carried over into the art they collect.
"We came from the film school generation," Lucas says, "and so we were all sort of partners in trying to break into the movie business. We all helped each other."
Lucas started buying Rockwell illustrations as soon as he could afford them. Soon Spielberg caught the bug. So far, they say they've managed to avoid competing for Rockwell's treasured pieces.
"We usually talk beforehand and we decide who gets it," Lucas says. "It's whoever wants it the most."
Both men grew up with Rockwell's deeply American Saturday Evening Post covers: a family Thanksgiving, children playing marbles, a little boy raking leaves with his grandfather or a little girl watching her mother primp at the dressing table -- all iconic Rockwell images.
"He wasn't cynical. He wasn't mean-spirited," Spielberg says.
"He captured the American ideal of what we wanted to believe we were," Lucas says, finishing Spielberg's thought. "We weren't any better then than we are now, but by having the ideal out there -- what we aspired to -- it made it so that we could try to be more than what we were."
'The Heart Of Every Movie'
Lucas and Spielberg have hung Rockwell's pictures all over their homes, offices and in storage, but this is the first time they've seen 57 of them together in one place. Now gathered in "Telling Stories," their collections reveal the director's interest in themes of childhood, wonder, awe and the power of imagination.
In The Shadow Artist -- a 1920 magazine illustration and part of Lucas' collection -- Rockwell paints a white-bearded gentleman standing in profile against a wall that's bathed in light from an oil lamp. He makes a shadow puppet with his hands -- a dog with an open mouth and perky ears. The shadow artist also has an audience.
"There are three small children, absolutely rapt, in the foreground," says American Art Museum Director Betsy Broun. "We only see the backs of their heads. The girl has a bright red bow; the middle boy has red suspenders; the boy on the right has hair going in different directions and great big ears."
And all of them are mesmerized by the magic the old man is making with his shadow.
"That magic," Broun says, "is at the heart of every movie."
Lucas says that's exactly why he bought The Shadow Artist.
"It's sort of the beginning of movies," he says. "It's using light and shadow to tell a story, which is what we do for a living."
Another Rockwell painting is also movielike. In the 1941 Saturday Evening Post magazine cover The Flirts, a pretty blond in a convertible waits at a stoplight. Next to her, hanging out of the window of an immense turquoise truck, a beefy driver picks the petals off a daisy as if to say, "she loves me, she loves me not."
"He looks at her with a nice smile on his face," says "Telling Stories" curator Virginia Mecklenburg. "He's not leery. He's just being a guy."
But the pretty blond stares snootily straight ahead and won't give the driver the time of day. It's funny in a gentle way -- a Rockwell way.
The scene is reminiscent of something out of Lucas' 1973 film American Graffiti -- although the painting is part of Spielberg's Rockwell collection.
"That certainly could be Richard Dreyfuss looking at Suzanne Somers down there -- although she didn't have a convertible," he says.
Putting The Picture Together
Rockwell's job was to grab a reader's attention at newsstands that were crowded with magazine covers. You don't really linger in front of these paintings as you would with Claude Monet or Pablo Picasso.
There's nothing to puzzle out in Rockwell -- no mysteries to be solved. Rockwells are quick shots, achieved with great skill and told in a single frame.
"There is a detail and a care and an attention to the way he puts the picture together," Broun says. "He would cast the picture by interviewing friends and neighbors until he found someone who looked just right."
Then the artist hunted down the right costumes for them to wear -- the little girl's red ribbon, the blond's white hat -- and the right props -- a 1930s radio microphone, an Underwood typewriter. Then he gathered his costumed cast together for a photograph. Finally, back in his studio, Rockwell created his painting.
Considering how carefully Rockwell crafted his stories, it's no wonder movie directors like Lucas and Spielberg would see him as a kindred spirit.
The Sweet Compassion Of Norman Rockwell
Rockwell's paintings have achieved iconic status in the U.S., but that doesn't keep people from knocking his work. He's been called saccharine, sentimental and soppy, and many museums still don't take him seriously. But Lucas says that very sweetness is what sets Rockwell apart.
"In the art world it's called corny and naive," Lucas says. "You can take the corny and naive out of the American spirit -- out of these images -- and you end up with a lot of what is going on today, which is the same ideas, only without any of the heart, without any of the human compassion."
Rockwell painted the world as he wanted it to be, full of optimism and wonder. The stories may not have been real, but that doesn't mean they weren't worth telling.
Spielberg and Lucas say Rockwell told the stories we needed to hear -- now, perhaps, more than ever.