Friday, March 13, 2015

Attention to Detail

Howard Pyle can be viewed as Rockwell's master in the craft of illustration.  No, Rockwell did not study under him.  Pyle died when Rockwell was a very young art student, in 1911.  But Pyle was the most respected illustrator of his day, and Rockwell definitely sought to emulate him.  This meant not merely learning to paint as well as the master, but also learning his approach to illustration.  Pyle-style illustrators do not work out of pure imagination.  If they mean to illustrate a story about pirates, they don't dream up a pirate ship out of their own minds.  They go and find out what pirate ships really would have looked like.  And they paint that.  They are realists in a strong sense.

Rockwell followed this approach to a fault in his early career.  If you page through a chronological collection of his pictures, such as Christopher Finch's 332 Magazine Covers, you will see that a great many of Rockwell's works up until the early 40's (by which time Rockwell was nearly 50 years old) were costume numbers--colonial maidens, pirates, cowboys, and other such characters.  He had an enormous collection of costumes and other props stashed in his studio, and he liked to put them to use.

In 1943, he lost his studio, all the props, and sadly a great number of his paintings, in a fire.  After the fire, bereft of his massive costume collection, Rockwell more or less stopped with the costume pictures and started making his masterpieces instead.  Thank heavens nobody was hurt, but...thank heavens for the fire.

Despite more or less giving up on the costume pictures, Rockwell never did turn his back on his attention to detail, or to his obsessive commitment to getting the picture right.  And sometimes the pressure to get it right weighed on him.  His many fans would scour his pictures for mistakes, and write him letters excoriating him when they found some.  And find them they did.

Eventually, Rockwell decided to strike back at these nitpickers, and painted his first April Fool picture:

"Everything in the cover was impossible and wrong.  April Fool, I said to myself as I painted lightheartedly, April Fool.  I've fixed the mistake mongers.  (Though, of course, I hadn't: I put forty five mistakes and incongruities into the picture; a man wrote me from South America claiming to have found a hundred and twenty.)"  (My Adventures as an Illustrator, 319.)

Can't win.

In this post, I take a look at one of his mistakes.  In later posts in what I think might be a small series, I will look at Rockwell's attention to detail from various other angles.  In fact, I think his attention to detail is closely connected to the heart of his painting: his democratic mysticism.  But I don't want to give that away all at once.  So for today, just a quick look at a silly mistake.

A little while ago, I wrote about my favorite Rockwell.  It's this one.

This was published in Look Magazine in 1970.  It's the Church of the Nativity in Bethelehem, on Christmas Eve, 1969.  Rockwell went there with his photographer and had some pictures taken, but he posed his models back home.

In the photo, you can see in the hands of these soldiers a pair of rifles that soldiers of the time and place simply didn't carry.  I can't say for sure what the soldier on the right is holding.  Some little single shot or bolt action 22, I imagine.  The man on the left, though, is clearly holding a Winchester lever action rifle.  If you look to the left of his left elbow, you can see the end of the barrel, with the magazine tube underneath.  In the painting, Rockwell has changed this barrel out for what looks more or less like the barrel on the other man's rifle.  But he's left the buttstock as-is.  Same with the other buttstock--it remains as-is.  But the barrel of this second man's rifle has been altered.  Rockwell has made the barrel end of the rifle on the right into an M1 Carbine.

Now, I expect that's actually a correct rifle to put in the hands of these soldiers.  (The M1 Carbine was in fact being used by at least some Israeli troops at the time.)  But I do not know why Rockwell painted part of an M1 Carbine, but otherwise left his soldiers inappropriately armed.  Maybe he ran out of time and just couldn't make the needed changes?  Perhaps more likely, he couldn't put his hands on a model of the rifle, although this wouldn't have been an especially difficult feat.

For those with an interest in militaria and suchlike--the M1 Carbine was developed by my fellow North Carolinian, David Marshall "Carbine" Williams, in 1941, and adopted by the US Army the same year.  (Strictly speaking, the gas operating system of the rifle was designed by Williams.  The carbine as a whole was not.)  It was not an infantryman's rifle.  Front line troops were issued the M1 Garand, a large, heavy--and powerful--rifle chambered in 30-06.  The Garand was more rifle than, say, a tanker or a radioman or an MP needed.  So the Army wanted a light, short, easy to shoot rifle for non-infantry.  The M1 Carbine was selected, and it served with American soldiers throughout WWII and Korea, and even into the early days of Vietnam.  Surplus M1 carbines were available to the public through the Office of the Director of Civilian Marksmanship (now the Civilian Marksmanship Program) by the 1960's.  So it wouldn't have been all that difficult for Rockwell to get ahold of one for a reasonable price.  But evidently he did not.

Nor, for that matter, would it be correct to assume that Rockwell was not interested enough in firearms to take the trouble to get these rifles right.  Even leaving aside his generally fanatical attention to detail, Rockwell was interested in firearms.  He had a little collection of guns himself, probably initially at least as much out of an interest in using them as props as anything else.  But he was a shooter, and he enjoyed his collection.  And he painted a lot of guns.  During World War II, he more than once painted his character Willie Gillis toting his M1 Garand, for example.  (Once in a published picture, once in an unpublished picture.)  He painted machine guns, muskets, old fashioned six shooters, and all manner of historical and contemporary firearms, and he always took pains to get them right.

So the mix-up with the M1 Carbines is a puzzler.  It's an unusual slip in the work of a supremely careful painter.

But in the end, I don't think there's anything to be gained by becoming one of the "mistake mongers" that pestered Rockwell.  In an upcoming piece, I mean to say a little bit about at least one Rockwell "mistake," pointed out by two critics, that simply isn't a mistake.

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