By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 2, 2010; 1:36 PM
On a semi-private tour of the Norman Rockwell paintings collected by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, now on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Lucas stops and studies "Peach Crop," a huge horizontal canvas with five figures.
Lucas owns it, it's his favorite Rockwell, and yet the work is still revealing meanings to him. The painting depicts a young woman lying on a barn plank, her hand bandaged from peach picking. She's in the arms of a rugged farmhand, and three of his weathered friends are peering at the scene.
"There's a lot here -- it's very emotional. And also it's very Steinbeck," says the legendary director.
In front of the image, his famous friend offers an interpretation. "I think it's also very interesting that Rockwell went for the leading lady and leading man in the work. It's Gary Cooper and Linda Darnell, " says Spielberg, chuckling at his discovery.
Well, adds Lucas, two steps away, "at this end it's like 'The Wizard of Oz.' "
All this from one work: expressive faces, strong arms, high literature and movie magic.
Yes, you would agree -- if you love Rockwell like Lucas and Spielberg, who for the first time are showing 57 works from their private holdings at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. "Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell From the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg" opened Friday and remains through Jan. 2.
Their 20-minute walkthrough on Thursday night was a double-barreled chat between two friends about their common roots in the Saturday Evening Post generation and their admiration for a storyteller who reflected what some see as an idealized American life, albeit blending in humorous and stark realities. "Steven saw some of my work and he got interested. He was already a Rockwell fan," says Lucas. "What are you saying?" Spielberg, who has momentarily turned away, teases.
Spielberg continues: "He was the most popular of the popular illustrators. The Saturday Evening Post was a must-have. It never concerned me if he was taken seriously by the art critics." Spielberg's first Rockwell purchase was a 1923 oil: "And Daniel Boone Comes to Life on the Underwood Portable."
"In my family," he says, "he made us smile, he made us laugh. Later, in the civil rights era, when he started revealing what was behind the fourth wall" -- meaning the barrier between the work and the artist himself -- "he was just as serious about those topics as we were."
Lucas started collecting works by various illustrators soon after the film "American Graffiti" gave him enough money to invest in art. There are filmmaking techniques in almost every image, a connection that underlies the show. Rockwell, for instance, held auditions for his characters: actors when he lived in New Rochelle, N.Y., and neighbors when he lived in Vermont and Massachusetts. "He was telling stories on issues I could relate to. I wanted to be an illustrator but finally went into filmmaking," Lucas says.
Spielberg interjects: "Thank God for all of us."
In "Empire of the Sun," his 1987 film about a boy in a Japanese POW camp, Spielberg paid direct homage to Rockwell by including "Freedom From Fear," one of the artist's best-known works. "On his way to the detention center, Jim cuts out that picture and puts it in his suitcase," Spielberg says. Lucas said he never used Rockwell specifically but was influenced by his treatment of "the imagination."
Spielberg owns "Good Boy (Little Orphan at the Train)," a portrait of a nun holding a child while a woman on the station platform considers taking him. Other orphans are watching the transaction from the railroad car's windows. This was a depiction of the Orphan Train, a controversial movement from 1854 to 1929 that took children out of cities and into rural areas for new lives. "Rockwell was accused of gross sentimentality. That piece speaks to the pathos of what happened to those children," says Spielberg, adding, "and we have been accused of being sentimental."
Moving to "Grandpa and Me: Raking Leaves," owned by Lucas, Spielberg says, "It is everything Rockwell intended. He left it open-ended and included us in the interpretation." Lucas adds: "Grandpa is sensing the seasons change, and the boy is completely focused on burning leaves. The dog is curious." Spielberg amends, "The dog is looking for a ball."
The friends are not competitive when a Rockwell comes on the market. "We step aside for each other," says Spielberg. Also, Lucas says, laughing, "we never had to flip a coin."
And finally Spielberg gets to his favorite Rockwell, "The Connoisseur," done in 1962. "There's this very dapper gentleman standing in front of a Jackson Pollock. Now Rockwell spoke volumes about his intentions with just the back of people's heads," Spielberg says. "I think this is Alfred Hitchcock looking into the frame and saying, I hope I am never part of that. It looks so chaotic."