Dreams of Long Ago encapsulates Rockwell's unique ability to tell a story through the singular expression of his subject and the objects he carefully selected as their accompaniments, combining, in equal measure, both humor and sentimentality. Painted as a cover for The Saturday Evening Post, Dreams of Long Ago depicts an aging cowboy, listening to a gramophone, surrounded by relics of the past. Like many of Rockwell's most successful Post covers, Dreams of Long Ago reflects the tides of American popular culture in Rockwell's distinct vernacular.
The Bristol Sessions, still widely considered to be the "Big Bang" of modern country music, were recorded in Tennessee and aired on August 1st, 1927. Country music, or "hillbilly music" as it was more commonly known, had been commercially recorded since 1922 but it was not until the Victor Talking Machine Company, which manufactured the first phonograph and was later known as RCA, held the sessions that marked the commercial debuts of music legends Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, that the genre took widespread hold. Victoria Crenson, in Norman Rockwell's Portrait of America writes, "It certainly wasn't hard to understand why rural America found country western music appealing. But perhaps urban America enjoyed it because the independence and freedom of life on the range afforded a nostalgic look at a young country before big city problems; when nature, rather than the stock market, determined the conditions of survival. Some songs poked fun at all the city greenhorns and their romanticizing of the Old West. But even suave, urban-intellectual songwriters couldn't resist writing "cowboy" tunes." (Norman Rockwell's Portrait of America, New York, 1989, p. 82)
Dreams of Long Ago, which appeared on the August 13th, 1927 cover of the Post may well have been a direct reflection of this newfound appeal of the Old West, and America's tendency to idealize and yearn for the bygone and storied era. Rockwell's inspiration for Dreams of Long Ago was the result of a visit he paid to the James K. Van Brunt, the model for this cover. Norman Rockwell recalled, "When he saw me, his face lighted up with pleasure. He rose up and saluted me. 'Welcome to my little garden,' he said. 'My garden of mementos.'" (My Adventures as an Illustrator, New York, 1994, p. 206). "One day Rockwell called at [van Brunt's] rooming house to make an appointment for posing and came upon Van Brunt listening to his gramophone in a tiny room filled with souvenirs of days gone by. Kernels of popcorn bought at the Chicago Fair of 1893, heaped under a little glass dome. The butt of a cigar smoked by Ulysses Grant. A seashell brought back from a trip to Atlantic City with his dear late wife, years before. Van Brunt's biography, in slightly altered form, is the story Rockwell gives to his old cowboy" (K.A. Marling, Norman Rockwell, New York, 1997, p. 22) in Dreams of Long Ago.
Rockwell recalled his initial meeting with Van Brunt in 1924 in New Rochelle, New York: "I remember it was June and it was terribly hot. I was working in my underwear and not getting along too well because my brushes were slippery with perspiration. Suddenly the downstairs door banged and I heard someone come up the stairs treading on each step with a loud, deliberate thump...A tiny old man with a knobby nose, an immense, drooping mustache, and round, heavy-lidded eyes stamped bellicosely into the studio. 'James K. Van Brunt, sir,' he said, saluting me and bowing all at once.'Five feet two inches tall, sir. The exact height of Napoleon Bonaparte!' And he pushed out his thin little chest, which was encased in a fawn colored vest. 'I have fought the Confederate Army at Antietam, Fredericksburg, and in the Wilderness,' he said. 'I have battled the nations of the Sioux under Dull Knife, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. I have fought the Spaniards, sir, in Cuba.' And he rapped his cane on the floor and looked at me very belligerently. Then, having ascertained that I wasn't going to contradict him, he took off his gloves and his wide brimmed hat, laid them on a chair, and patted his mustache. 'This mustache, sir,' he said, 'is eight full inches wide from tip to tip. The ladies, sir, make much of it.' And he winked at me and walked over to my mirror to stare at his mustache." (My Adventures as an Illustrator, p. 206) Van Brunt was a consummate professional as a model, carefully practicing his poses in the mirror in advance of a session and, at times, inspiring the idea for the cover illustration. Rockwell stated that he used to suggest a cover almost every time they saw one another and referred to the day when Van Brunt first showed up at his studio as "one of the luckiest days of my life." (My Adventures as an Illustrator, p. 206)
In Dreams of Long Ago, Van Brunt poses, shoulders slumped, in front of a phonograph, clutching an RCA record titled 'Dreams of Long Ago.' 'Dreams of Long Ago' was recorded by Enrico Caruso, an Italian tenor whom Rockwell had met during his work at the Metropolitan Opera House for RCA in 1912. The lyrics begin: "shadows are falling and I sit alone/My heart recalling Memories when you were my own." Van Brunt's pose, with his chin resting in his hand, suggests a wistful nostalgia for a time passed and echoes the sentiments of the tune. The glint in his eye, and bemused expression, provide a glimpse of youthful exuberance belied by advancing age. Karal Ann Marling writes, "The humor of the scene, intermingled with a touch of pathos, comes from the sight of the diminutive figure of an old man in full western regalia thinking about his heroic youth has he listens to cowboy songs on the gramophone. But the details--the meticulously rendered objects scattered around the old man--flesh out the story. He wasn't a cowboy; what he is remembering are his days in the Wild West Show, among the dance hall beauties who display their ankles in the faded posters behind him." (Norman Rockwell, p. 21)
James K. Van Brunt appeared in ten Post covers by Rockwell, as well as countless other paintings used as advertisements. Given Van Brunt's distinctive visage with his mustache, the editor at the Post, George Horace Lorimer, complained. "Rockwell recalled, 'Mr. Lorimer said to me, 'I think you're using that man too much. Everybody's beginning to notice it. Maybe you'd better stop for a while. That mustache of his is too identifiable.' Rockwell informed Van Brunt of the problem, 'If you take off your mustache I can use you again...Otherwise I just can't.' Two weeks later Van Brunt visited. If Rockwell gave him ten dollars, he said, he'd shave off his mustache. 'It upset me,' the artist recollected, 'it was like the feeling of a great oak or the toppling of a statue which had been for years a monument to a man.'" (Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, p. 67) After Van Brunt removed his mustache, Rockwell found creative ways to include the model whose lower lip proved to be more distinctive than his big mustache. Van Brunt continued to pose for the artist, even dressing as three women in Rockwell's 1929 Post cover Gossips.
Norman Rockwell's beloved covers of The Saturday Evening Post are, in many respects, portraits of America that serve as both a faithful historical record of and a tender tribute to American popular culture. Indeed, both art connoisseurs and historians look to Rockwell's work as a barometer of the health of the American nation. Through wars, depression, and civil strife, Rockwell portrayed subjects from ordinary, everyday life. The scope of his appeal continues to grow as new generations live through the same quintessentially American types of experiences that Rockwell so faithfully depicted in his art. "For six decades, through two World Wars, the Great Depression, unprecedented national prosperity and radical social change, Norman Rockwell held up a mirror to America and reflected its identity through the portraits he painted of its people...Rockwell's paintings have done more than just sell magazines. They are in a large measure the visual memory of a nation." (Norman Rockwell's Portrait of America, p. 9)
Norman Rockwell and John Wayne, posed during a working session for a portrait commissioned by the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, 1974. Norman Rockwell Images in Catalogue: Printed by permission of the Norman Rockwell Family Agency. Copyright 2012 The Norman Rockwell Family Entities.
Norman Rockwell as "Busted Flush" in the movie Stagecoach, 1966. Norman Rockwell Images in Catalogue: Printed by permission of the Norman Rockwell Family Agency. Copyright 2012 The Norman Rockwell Family Entities.
Norman Rockwell Images in Catalogue: Printed by permission of the Norman Rockwell Family Agency. Copyright 2012 The Norman Rockwell Family Entities.