Early on in Steven Spielberg’s 1987 “Empire of the Sun,” before the Japanese invasion of Shanghai shatters the privileged world of the movie’s young British hero, we see the boy in the comfort of his own bedroom. In the dim room, the mother’s face glows as she tucks her son into bed, while the father, reading glasses and newspaper in hand, walks into the room and for a moment leans over both of them.
The scene looks as though it’s straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. And it is just that, according to Spielberg. “I based the scene of the parents tucking Jim into bed on Rockwell’s ‘Freedom From Fear,’” he says, adding that the page that Jim carries with him into the internment camp was a replica of the painting. “I think his ‘Freedom’ series best represent these ideals of family, home, community.”
This particular image, “Freedom From Fear,” belongs to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. But Spielberg owns another painting from the illustrator’s famous wartime “Freedom” series: a 1943 oil study for “Freedom of Speech,” which started the suite. And that image of a man speaking out at a town hall meeting is on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., starting Friday, as part of a show featuring Rockwell works from the collections of Spielberg and George Lucas.
“Telling Stories” has 57 works in all, primarily paintings, drawn exclusively from the holdings of the two filmmakers and longtime friends. The idea for the show grew out of a conversation that Spielberg had a couple years ago with art consultant Barbara Guggenheim, in which he suggested that he and Lucas owned enough paintings for a serious show.
“Here’s the problem,” Guggenheim remembers telling Spielberg. “What the world doesn’t need now is just another Rockwell show. But what if it’s not just about Rockwell, but about how two of the greatest storytellers of the 20th century connect to one of the greatest storytellers of the early 20th century?”
When she brought the idea two years ago to Elizabeth Broun, director of the American Art Museum, Guggenheim says, she had the pitch down to three words. “I called her up and said, ‘Spielberg, Lucas, Rockwell,’ and she said ‘yes’ almost that fast.”
So the exhibition has three subjects in a way, exploring their various connections through catalog essays as well as video interviews with the filmmakers.
“There’s a different lens for looking at Rockwell because of how George and Steven see their pictures,” says the show’s curator, Virginia Mecklenburg. “They are both drawn to Rockwell’s stories — the way an entire narrative unfolds because of how he crafts a single frame.”
Interviewed separately for this article, both Spielberg and Lucas said they grew up looking at Rockwell’s work in the form of his hugely popular Saturday Evening Post covers. But neither one started collecting his work until they had some cash on hand from their first blockbuster movies of the 1970s.
Lucas’ first purchase, following the success of “Star Wars,” was “Boy and Father: Baseball Dispute,” the spring entry in Rockwell’s 1962 Four Seasons Calendar. One of the most all-American images of many all-American works in the show, it captures a tense moment between a father and his son, who wears umpire gear and points to home plate defiantly. It’s easy to imagine the disputed call that came before it.
Spielberg’s first Rockwell, also in the show, was “And Daniel Boone Comes to Life on the Underwood Portable,” a 1923 advertisement for the typewriter company that tells a story about a story: a studious-looking, clean-cut boy sits at his typewriter with a thought-bubble device above revealing his dramatic vision of the rugged frontiersman.
For Lucas, who owns more than 50 works by Rockwell, the artist is part of a much larger collection of American illustration art from 1850 to 1950, which he says he could buy in some volume because the work was relatively affordable, especially when he started. (Rockwell’s prices have since soared, with his current auction record standing at $15.4 million.)
The interest stems, he says, from a onetime desire to be an illustrator. As a teenager in the early ‘60s, he drew pictures — especially pictures of cars — for fun. He paid the rent in Malibu one summer away from home by selling his own paintings of “large-eyed beach bunnies.” (He says his angst-ridden portraits of “morose, Giacometti-style, dark-eyed, struggling, suffering people” were not so commercial.)
“Before I graduated from high school, I wanted to go to Art Center in Los Angeles, but my father wouldn’t pay for it,” he says, describing the roundabout way he ended up transferring to USC for film.
For Spielberg, who owns fewer works by Rockwell and has slightly fewer in the show, the artist has largely been a departure from the other types of art he collects, such as Impressionist painting. He says part of the impetus for the show, in fact, was seeing over the years how friends of his children (he has seven) gravitated to a Rockwell painting, “Happy Birthday Miss Jones,” more than any other artwork in his home.
The March 17, 1956, cover of the Saturday Evening Post, this painting shows a prim schoolteacher caught off guard in front of her class after they’ve written “surprise” and “happy birthday” on her chalkboard. (While Spielberg owns the oil, Lucas owns the large-scale pencil version of this painting, and the Smithsonian show brings both together.)
“When my kids were younger, they would bring friends over to play, and they would be stopped in their tracks by that painting,” Spielberg says. “Nobody was stopped by the Monet, but that’s the one that arrests everyone’s attention.”
That painting is a good example, he believes, of how Rockwell remains relevant today. Even if the teacher’s hairstyle or students’ clothes have gone out of style several times since, the warmth of a good teacher-student relationship has not. And the boy sitting in the back of the class balancing a chalkboard eraser on his head could, Spielberg suggests, exist today.
Both Spielberg and Lucas believe that the core themes in Norman Rockwell’s pictures, however idealized, are themes that still motivate people today.
“For me, the interest is mythological,” says Lucas, who first majored in anthropology when he couldn’t study illustration in college. “There’s the myth of patriotism, the myth of religion, the myth of America as a wonderful, bucolic place where everyone is created equally and good people succeed. Rockwell taps into our best aspirations for ourselves.”
Lucas also talks about a moral strain in Rockwell’s work that he finds appealing. “It’s like what a friend of mine once said about the movies, especially historical movies: This isn’t the way things were, it’s the way things should have been.”
Or, as Spielberg puts it, “Rockwell speaks to my optimism as a global American about the future of this world. He also speaks to my work as a filmmaker.”
Specifically, Spielberg says he likes to shoot wide-angle shots sometimes to let the actor’s body and gesture communicate more than his face. “I always thought Rockwell did this so well — he could even paint someone’s back and you would know so much about a character.”
(As for faces, the producer-director sees Tom Hanks as the “quintessential” subject for Rockwell: “Had Tom been around when Rockwell was painting, he would have come out to L.A. to paint him.”)
Both filmmakers say that Rockwell has figured into their work in other, less direct, ways as well. Lucas says he’s never used a Rockwell image in a film but believes that the original 1977 “Star Wars” to some extent shares Rockwell’s sensibility.
“On the one hand, it’s a film for young people, a film for 12-year-olds that taps into the Norman Rockwell world of bold adventures,” he says. “But then, on the darker side, it explores the psychology of our relationships with our parents, our government and some things not at all Rockwellian.”
(Rockwell famously aided the government during World War II by sending his “Four Freedoms” paintings on tour to help sell war bonds, raising some $133 million.)
Despite the direct references to Rockwell in “Empire of the Sun,” Spielberg picks “ET” as the movie he’s made that’s most closely connected to Rockwell in sensibility.
“I certainly thought a lot about Rockwell when I was making ‘E.T.,’” he says.
“‘E.T.’ I think comes closest to Rockwell’s America, because it’s centered on a family in need of repairs, and there’s such a hopefulness there. But that’s where it stops — I don’t think Rockwell has a single alien in his repertoire.”
So would someone who knew both filmmakers walking through the Smithsonian galleries be able to guess which pictures belong to Lucas and which to Spielberg?
“Maybe not,” says Spielberg. “George and I have been best friends since the ‘60s, and we’re so similar in so many ways.”
Lucas agreed, for the most part. “We have the same tastes, the same feelings, the same sensibilities. Looking at one artist, we tend toward the same thing,” he says. “That’s why we were so compatible making movies together.”
There’s only one real difference when it comes to Rockwell, Lucas offers. “If it’s a more expensive, important painting, it’s probably Steven’s.”