Norman Rockwell's Starstruck was painted for the September 22, 1934 cover of The Saturday Evening Post. The 1930s marked a new era of the motion picture industry and the emergence of major film studios and true Hollywood starlets. Virginia M. Mecklenburg writes, "By the 1930s, movies were big business. The early era of silent films shown in storefront theaters was over, replaced by a network of studio-owned movie palaces where millions of Americans spent their entertainment dollars. Hundreds of westerns, romances, melodramas, and comedies were produced each year, with many complicated plots made possible by the 1928 introduction of "talkies." Handsome stars, inspiring ingènues and character actors provided fodder for movie magazines that exposed the professional stories and private lives of Hollywood notables." (Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, Washington, D.C., 2010, p. 69)
In 1930, in the midst of a failing first marriage, Rockwell visited Los Angeles at the invitation of Clyde Forsythe, his former studio mate, who had moved west. By this point, Rockwell was "something of a celebrity himself...so it is not surprising that he had fairly easy access to the lots of major studios or that his arrival in Los Angeles was noted in the press. The Los Angeles Times announced, 'Rockwell's character depictions on the Post...from now on are likely to show the Hollywood influence...inasmuch as that is what he came here for. In fact, he very definitely has in mind doing some 'Hollywood' covers showing film characters as he sees them on studio lots in their more or less native haunts. Even better for Rockwell, Hollywood offered a marvelous array of models: 'all the extras, out-of-work actors-cowboys, old geezers, wizened crones, sleek matinée idols, lovely girls, plain girls.'" (Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, p. 69)
Most memorable among Rockwell's achievements is his long-standing relationship with The Saturday Evening Post, a weekly periodical read by millions. Over the course of more than fifty years, the artist illustrated 322 covers for the magazine including the present work. Rockwell's covers sold more magazines than any other artist's and, in this way, his art became familiar to the American public and emblematic of both the great events and the mundane experiences of the first three-quarters of the twentieth century. "On a frequent and regular basis, millions of Americans brought Rockwell's art into their homes--viewing his Post covers while seated in their favorite chairs, surrounded by personal belongings in the company of their families." (M.H. Hennessey, A. Knutson, Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, exhibition catalogue, Atlanta, Georgia, 1999, p. 143) Due to the overwhelming popularity of the film medium, Rockwell's publishers, including The Saturday Evening Post, were eager for Hollywood-themed covers to sell their magazines and many covers from the 1930s featured all aspects of the movie business including Gary Cooper as The Texan (1930, private collection) and Movie Starlet and Reporters (1936, private collection).
Once back home in New Rochelle, New York, Rockwell went in search for material for new covers that would satisfy his publishers' taste for fame. When a young neighbor, John Cullen Murphy, was playing baseball, Rockwell asked the boy if he would like to model for a painting. This experience had such a profound impact on Murphy that he went on to become an illustrator in his own right, creating the popular Prince Valiant comic strip for over three decades.
Starstruck depicts a young Murphy, swooning over popular stars of the day, including, quite possibly Jean Harlow, Fay Wray, or Barbara Stanwyck, among others. Mecklenburg writes, "Rockwell's glamour girl is a stock 1930s Hollywood blonde who resembled the Jean Harlow character in Capra's film Platinum Blonde (1931). Harlow's picture graced the covers of movie magazines and cosmetic ads and her acquiline features and plucked eyebrows were admired by teenage girls and mooned over by adoring boys." (Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, p. 75) Distracted by the photographs of beautiful women, in Starstruck, the teenage boy has left behind his childhood pursuits of baseball and playtime with his faithful companion. Rockwell succeeds in this image to both encourage the glamorous vision of Hollywood and the motion picture industry while recalling his earliest themes of boyhood. The overwhelming charm of this painting lies in the echoed expressions of a boy and his dog, both pining for attention from an unwitting, and perhaps unattainable subject. Starstruck is exemplary of Rockwell's ability to imbue his work with narrative and capture the essence and character of the people that he depicted.
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, New York, 1989, p. 9) Starstruck 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. Like many of Rockwell's most successful Post covers, Starstruck reflects the tides of American popular culture in Rockwell's distinct vernacular.