Norman Rockwell’s illustrations for the covers of The Saturday Evening Post are indelibly etched within the American consciousness as images of national pride. Painting a sweeping range of topics during a century of extensive technological and social change, Rockwell helped forge a sense of American identity through his art, producing more than 800 magazine covers for the most widely popular publications of the period. Specifically, Rockwell’s Post covers produced during the 1940s and 1950s are some of his most visually and narratively complex, and helped establish the artist as a household name across America. Painted at the height of his career in 1947 for the January 11th cover, Piano Tuner exhibits the pinnacle of Rockwell’s achievement as a realist painter, compositional master and American storyteller.
Piano Tuner, in which a young boy and older gentlemen work together fully in unison, encases an exquisite range of detail for the inquisitive eye while also presenting an image of youthful wonder contrasted with sage expertise. With his hands firmly on the piano keys, the experienced tuner is focused on the task at hand, listening attentively to the music to make sure it is precisely on pitch. Meanwhile, to the left, a young boy, exuding a tender and youthful innocence, hits an octave to aid the tuner hard at work. Exquisite in its attention to detail, Piano Tuner highlights Rockwell’s extraordinary skills as a draftsman. To the right of the scene, sheet music by Mozart is propped against the piano cover, just in front of the tuner’s hat, umbrella and coat resting on the piano bench. In the foreground, Rockwell has placed the tuner’s toolkit front and center to immediately establish the narrative quality of the work, while in the background he grants the viewer a complete view of the interior setting, from the intricate details in the library to the carved molding and windows in the upper right of the picture plane. As a result, in classic Rockwell fashion, the artist has executed such a complete narrative that the picture feels fully immersive and tactile, as if one can hear the music coming from the work itself.
Andrew Brinkerhoff Smith and George Zimmer posed for the central characters in Piano Tuner. As payment for his work, Rockwell gave young Smith, only eight years old at the time, $5 to model for him. On New Years Eve in 1947, Rockwell brought Piano Tuner to Smith's parents and presented it to them as a gift. In 1970, the work descended to Smith himself and eventually to his children (the present owners). Throughout the 1940s, George Zimmer, who modeled as the piano tuner, also posed in some of Rockwell’s most popular Post covers, most notably Salesman in Swimming Hole from August 1945. Rockwell once commented on the role of models within his picture making process, “With me, selecting the right model is one of the most important. Some artists feel that they can create the type they want from anyone but I believe that is all wrong. When you have a good idea clearly in mind, spare no effort to get the ideal character for it.” (N. Rockwell, Rockwell on Rockwell: How I Make a Picture, New York, 1979, p. 44)
Painting musical subjects was one of Rockwell’s favorite subgenres, to which the artist repeatedly returned in his work. Many of his most compelling paintings, such as Cellist and Little Girl Dancing (Meeting of the Minds) (1923), Jeff Raleigh’s Piano Solo (The Virtuoso) (1939) and Barbershop Quartet (1936) exude that same love and appreciation for music as in Piano Tuner. Indeed, it is tempting to connect this theme to Rockwell’s own musical background as both a choirboy and an employee at an opera house. Rockwell fondly recalled a production of Aida, during which it was his job to push an elephant across the stage in the background: “All the while this was going on--the marching, the mad dash behind the background, the elephant knocking over soldiers like tenpins, all of us breathless, panting, dropping our spears, helmets, turning around to glare at the fellow in the elephant--the real action of the opera would be going on out front: the principles singing magnificently, walking about, embracing, the orchestra playing; and no doubt, beyond, the audience would be deeply moved by the rich spectacle and exalted music.” (N. Rockwell, My Adventures as an Illustrator, New York, 1994, p. 63)
Beyond reflecting the artist’s own musical background, Piano Tuner also embodies a more universal theme Rockwell consistently explored throughout his career--the inevitable continuity of life. Just one year after he painted Piano Tuner, Rockwell embarked on a series of seasonal images to be published as calendars for Brown & Bigelow. The imagery most often featured a young boy and his grandfather or a boy and his father, the elder of the two imparting valuable wisdom and life lessons to the young pupil. Virginia Mecklenburg writes, “In 1948, Rockwell proposed a calendar series featuring images of the four seasons of the year to Brown & Bigelow, the company that produced his Boy Scout Calendars. With the seasonal calendars, he returned to themes about the passage of time that had occupied him during his early years at the Post. In revisiting the motif in the late 1940s and 1950s, Rockwell approached the idea not from the perspective of a twenty-something but as a man in his fifties. The conception was Rockwell’s own.” (Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, p. 151) This theme is echoed in Piano Tuner. Here, Rockwell depicts a young boy and an older man working completely in sync to achieve the same goal, impeccably capturing the mentoring relationship between the two as they determine whether the piano is tuned just right.
Similar to the often idealized world of the movies, Norman Rockwell's work has been characterized as a reflection of our better selves, capturing America as it ought to be. His work is simultaneously both of a moment and timeless in its communication of the universal truths of human nature. "In the twentieth century, visual imagery permeated American culture, ultimately becoming the primary means of communication. Rockwell's images have become part of a collective American memory. We remember selective bits and pieces of information and often reassemble them in ways that mingle fantasy with reality. We formulate memory to serve our own needs and purposes. Rockwell knew this instinctively: 'Everything I have ever seen or done has gone into my pictures in one way or another...Memory doesn't lie, though it may distort a bit here and there.'" (M.H. Hennessey, A. Knutson, Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, exhibition catalogue, Atlanta, Georgia, 1999, p. 64) Indeed, Piano Tuner embodies the very best of these ideas associated with Rockwell: photographic realism, classic timelessness and hopeful nostalgia.