Saturday, July 11, 2009

Norman Rockwell's Tom Sawyer, part 6

* TI list member Tom Watson takes over this week as I enjoy a short break from the blog - thanks Tom!

Concluding Tom's analysis of Norman Rockwell's illustrations for Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer...

Illustration #8

The last full color illustration in the book shows Tom and his friend Becky Thatcher at the moment Becky realizes they are lost in a large cave, with only a few candles for light. Rockwell seemed to have natural instincts in portraying the human nature aspect of our lives. He has depicted Becky as much smaller than Tom, with a tiny little face that expresses the drama of that moment, when her fear has suddenly overwhelmed her. Becky looks frail and helpless, while clinging tight to Tom. A wide eyed Tom strains to look beyond the limited candle light, without a clue where they are headed. They both look small and helpless in a frightening situation. Tom's body language is rigid, emphasizing the tension and fear of the moment.

Rockwell has developed a threatening composition, that emphasizes the situation in a dramatic theatrical manner. He effectively uses counter change in the figures to add to the mood.. Tom looking straight ahead in full profile with his back arched back against Becky, and Becky leaning forward against Tom, looking back toward the opposite direction, as though something was going to reach out and grab her. They are effectively enclosed (surrounded) by threatening jagged shadows and rock formations. This isolates the two figures, and visually keeps our eye moving back to the center of the composition.

Through visual means, Tom and Becky are psychologically entrapped in the dark shapes of the cave. The large pointed triangular shaped ledge on the right is like a menacing monster reaching out for Becky.

The large diagonal rock formation, mostly in shadow on the left, functions as a visual roadblock. It immediately blocks Tom from looking out of the painting, and reinforces all the shadows that collectively create a large triangle around Tom and Becky. The connected shape of the two figures, again create another triangular shape.

Once again, Rockwell plays light against dark patterns, for clarity and in this case, to emphasize the mood. Rockwell limits his pallet to reds and green hues. Notice the suggestion of reds in Becky’s greenish dress, bonnet and Tom’s greenish coat and hat.

He also reverses the color combination in portions of the cave, subtly working soft hints of green hues into the reddish brown colored rock, using the complimentary colors to relate and tie together the entire illustration. Rockwell is careful not to overdue the glow of the candle, which only gives out enough light for subtle definition. Tom’s hand cupped around the flame is virtually a dark silhouette, contrasting the pale yellow flickering candle light.

While researching in Hannibal, Missouri, Rockwell requested and was guided into the actual cave in the novel, to make some sketches and get a first hand feel of it. After passing through a maze of passages, the guide left Rockwell with a lantern and told him that he had to get back home, because his wife was pregnant and due to give birth that day. He said he would be back in a few hours. Rockwell reluctantly and nervously stayed and sketched, but soon forgot his concern, once he got into his work. The guide returned and escorted Rockwell out without any incident, but I imagine the experience helped him considerably with his approach to the illustration. As I mentioned before, Rockwell would go to great lengths and inconvenience to create a better illustration. In my opinion, it paid off in keeping his tremendous popularity and constant demand for his illustrations, decade after decade. I can’t think of another illustrator that achieved all that Rockwell did in their entire career as a working illustrator. And, I don't believe that came by mere accident, coincidence or chance.

I want to thank Leif Peng for offering me the opportunity to express my thoughts and post the reproductions scanned directly from one of my favorite old books. Although Leif primarily focuses on the 50’s illustrators for TI, he has a broad appreciation and understanding of illustration throughout American history, and on occasion, extends the focus to other periods, as a change of pace. And, thanks to all the TI viewers. Hopefully in the future, I can provide Leif with another break, with comments and scans from Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”.

* Note from Leif: Thanks Tom - and yes, you bet! I know we'll all be looking forward to a repeat performance from you some time soon!

* Tom Watson is a retired West Coast illustrator, art director and educator. He has been a frequent contributor to Today's Inspiration and his storyboard work for film was a subject of a post on my other blog, Storyboard Central.

This week's images are © MBI/Heritage Press, Date (1936 or 1940) and are used with the permission of the Norman Rockwell Museum. This past weekend the museum featured the grand opening of a traveling exhibition, American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell.

Stephanie Plunkett, Chief Curator of the Museum would like readers to know that the Museum does travel an exhibition of signed lithographic prints from the Tom and Huck series to other museums and cultural centers. Stephanie writes, "We do have two upcoming bookings for that exhibition are listed below, so perhaps your readers will have the opportunity to visit if they live in the region."

Here is the information about the traveling exhibition:

Norman Rockwell's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn

Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale-Davie, Florida
November 14, 2009 through January 29, 2010

Averitt Center for the Arts, Statesboro, Georgia
March 12, 2010 through May 7, 2010

"It also might be interesting to note that the original paintings for the series are in the collection of the Mark Twain Museum in Hannibal, Missouri. The originals are beautiful. A study from the series will be on view in our upcoming exhibition, Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera, which opens on November 7, 2009."


  1. Thanks for the wonderful Rockwell analysis this week.

  2. Tom,Thank you for the guided tour through the Tom Sawyer illustrations.I've seen a few of them reproduced in books,but I hadn't seen the others until now.My favorite is the spanking one,because of the lively action.

  3. Thanks Gerry and Steve Fastner, it was my pleasure and I'm grateful you enjoyed it. I think there might be a lot of people that haven't seen all the Rockwell illos from the two Mark Twain book. Many of his SEPost cover illos have been widely reproduce, but these book illos are less circulated. Although, I never had the honor and privelege to meet Rockwell in person, I have admired the man as much as his great talent.. a quiet shy sensitive man, with an enormous amount of talent, who was basically insecure, but worked like a dynamo all his life, to keep from becoming stale and obsolete. I think those characteristics helped develop the results of what we now enjoy and appreciate in his work.

    Tom Watson

  4. Thank you for this series. I've always enjoyed Rockwell, but this analysis of his illustrations gave me a greater appreciation for his talent.

    "Today's Inspiration" never fails to delight and entertain.