Norman Rockwell painted over 800 covers of some of America's most popular magazines, including The Saturday Evening Post, for which he is best known, making him perhaps the greatest visual mass communicator of the twentieth century. The Franklin Mint, founded in 1964, sought to bring art and collectibles to the masses and in 1970, they commissioned Rockwell, whose imagery was as instantly recognizable as it was widespread, to create a series of works for the company. The interests of Rockwell and The Mint, both veritable American 'brands,' were aligned and the resulting prints and collectibles represented a successful and lucrative partnership. The Collector, the most important work from this commission, is a touching scene in which Rockwell celebrates the connoisseurship of the coin collector, The Mint's most loyal customer.
The Franklin Mint initially commissioned Rockwell to design drawings that could be made into collectible plates, medals and figures. According to Laurie Norton Moffatt, Executive Director of The Norman Rockwell Museum, "The Franklin Mint is the only company from whom Norman Rockwell accepted a commission that would be rendered three-dimensionally in its reproduced state." (Norman Rockwell: A Definitive Catalogue, vol. I, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, 1986, p. 392) Rockwell completed several sets of drawings, totaling about 80 sketches between 1970 and 1975, to be translated into series of ingots-including subjects on the poems of Robert Frost, the Boy Scouts, and a series called "Norman Rockwell's Fondest Memories." The Collector was one of two oil paintings created as part of this commission. The works were painted to be reproduced in a limited edition series of lithographs, which were printed with a dedication to the members of the Franklin Mint Collecting Society. Spirit of America (Lot ****) was the second of these works in oil. The coins and ingots which adorn the room in The Collector represent the collectibles offered by The Franklin Mint.
In The Collector, an enthusiast intently studies a coin in hand. He wears white gloves to delicately handle his prized objects, substituting his glasses for a magnifying glass as he makes a closer inspection. He appears to take pride in his collecting, dressed sharply for the examination. A younger man, and a dog are keen apprentices. The scene appears to be in an inviting home study, where the collector enjoys a hot drink with his pipe. The light from the desk lamp casts a warm yellow light on the scene.
Included in the detailed still life work that encompasses much of the canvas of The Collector is a bust of Benjamin Franklin, the namesake of the Franklin Mint Company. There is also a tenuous connection linking Benjamin Franklin to the history of The Saturday Evening Post, Rockwell's famed previous employer. Cyrus H.C. Curtis, founder of Curtis Publishing Company, strengthened this association by including a line stating "founded A.D. 1728 by Benj. Franklin," with a logo of Franklin's likeness on the editorial page in every issue he oversaw of The Post. Franklin's colonial publication, The Pennsylvania Gazette, was printed in the same print shop building in Philadelphia where The Post was launched, six years after The Gazette ceased publication in 1815. That shared building is the actual link between the two publications. (D. Solomon, American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, New York, 2013, p. 73)
In 1932, Rockwell traveled for an extended stay in Paris with his wife, Mary. Rockwell's biographer Deborah Solomon notes that on the trip, "One day when he ducked into the gift shop at the Louvre, he bought Mary a miniature sculpture, 'a six inch reproduction of Benjamin Franklin by Houdon,' as she noted. It had more significance for her husband than for her-Ben Franklin was purportedly the Post's founder, as it said on the cover every week. Perhaps the bust was a symbol of Rockwell's career, one he wished his wife could enjoy." (American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, New York, 2013, p. 157) This souvenir possibly served as a model for the bust in the present work. Rockwell has tilted the bust in a downward angle, not original to an Houdon or traditional bust sculpture. This intentional slant is evident in a reference photograph that Rockwell used as part of his working process, where he is holding a bust at this desired angle. The tilt of Franklin's inanimate head echoes that of the figures peering down at the coins, a deliberate compositional repetition by Rockwell for added effect.
Aspects of the composition of The Collector recall traditional Renaissance painting, to which Rockwell was particularly attuned. Coins specifically are historic objects and have been pictured throughout the history of art. Quentin Metsys' The Money-Lender (Banker) and his Wife has parallel characteristics to the composition of The Collector. In both works a table makes up the foreground, extending from beyond the bottom edge of the canvas, with book shelves encompassing the background, where a man examines coins alongside an observer. The color palettes are also similar, where the artists have used the complimentary colors of green and red in key components of the work. The Collector is a twentieth century image displaying a traditional, wholesome pastime. Rockwell chose a traditional, formal composition that was fitting for the activity.