Norman Rockwell stated, “One of my best, I think,” in his autobiographical book The Norman Rockwell Album (New York, 1961, p. 112) of his painting The Watchmaker painted in 1948 as a commission from The Watchmakers of Switzerland, now known as the Federation of Swiss Watchmakers. The Swiss firm was seeking a marketing campaign that could elevate their brand globally, and they needed an artist who could generate maximum impact in a single image. Rockwell, at the height of his fame, fit the bill. As America's preeminent illustrator, Rockwell was one of the greatest mass communicators of the century. Painting a sweeping range of topics during a century of extensive technological and social change, he helped forge a sense of national identity through his art. Rockwell was witness to the height of Impressionism as well as the development of Cubism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. He traveled to Europe to study the art of Pablo Picasso and he was aware of the move toward Modernism in America by Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, among others. Despite the trends of the day, however, Rockwell chose to pursue a career as an illustrator, producing more than 800 magazine covers. In doing so, Rockwell became as ubiquitous to the American public as the images he created.
In addition to Rockwell’s countless Saturday Evening Post covers, he was highly sought after for story illustrations and advertisements. Virginia Mecklenburg notes that, during the post-War era, Rockwell’s “advertising commissions picked up…when corporations recognized that his images were especially appropriate for lifestyle advertising that associated a product with an activity or experience rather than providing specific information about the goods being sold.” (Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, New York, 2010, p. 127) The commission on behalf of The Watchmakers of Switzerland was particularly high profile as the image was to be advertised over a period of many years in the Post and Life magazine, as well as to be displayed in jewelry stores internationally. Rockwell ultimately created two paintings for The Watchmakers of Switzerland, the present work and The Jewelry Shop of 1954.
While Rockwell’s commissioned work differed from his covers of the Post in meeting more specific needs, his approach to his subject was distinctly his own and Rockwell never strayed from his own underlying themes and artistic principles. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in The Watchmaker, whose subject bore a deep personal connection to Rockwell. As Laura Claridge notes, "John Rockwell's father and mother—Norman's great-grandparents—were Samuel and Oril Sherman Rockwell. Born in 1810 to well-to-do farmers in Ridgebury, Connecticut...Samuel was apprenticed when he was fifteen years old to a watchmaker and jeweler in Manhattan. After twelve years of applying 'more than ordinary natural aptitude for the business,' the twenty-seven-year-old man bought the modest establishment and developed it into a 'flourishing and profitable business.'...Samuel Rockwell worked so hard that he was soon able to sell his watch shop in 'the crowded city' of New York to establish a real estate business in the 'pure air' of Yonkers.” (Norman Rockwell, New York, 2001, n.p.) This family history would have likely provided a meaningful backdrop to the artist’s conception of the work.
Beyond reflecting the artist’s own specific upbringing, The Watchmaker also embodies a more universal theme Rockwell consistently explored throughout his career—the passage of time. The same year the present work was painted, 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. 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. He wanted, he said, ‘to mirror the average person…leading our kind of life during each of the four seasons of the year,’ adding, ‘I prefer painting either the very old or the very young because they remain strictly themselves; neither type wants to pretty up.” (Telling Stories, p. 151) This theme of the passage of time is echoed in The Watchmaker. Rockwell depicts an earnest young boy mesmerized by a wizened old man. The boy’s face is pressed against the glass as he observes the watchmaker ply his craft, while the watchmaker is deep in concentration as he carefully makes adjustments to the interior mechanics of the boy’s watch.
Rockwell’s work is also often autobiographical. This can be at times literally, such as with his iconic Triple Self Portrait of 1960 (Norman Rockwell Art Collection Trust), or figuratively when small clues suggest that Rockwell in some way identifies with his subjects. In the present work, the watchmaker can be interpreted as an avatar for Rockwell, whose own meticulous craft required fine tools and expert attention to detail. Rockwell labored extensively over every detail in his imagery, ensuring that the sum of the parts equals and betters the whole. In this way, the fine and delicate tool the watchmaker is using to examine the watch could be a synonym for the small paintbrush that Rockwell employed to achieve the mesmerizing surface of the painting. When the advertisement ran in the magazines, the copy underneath the image underscored this notion, reading: “When you listen to your watch, it speaks not only of the passing of the seconds but of the skills of all of the men whose efforts have gone into its perfection.”
This underlying symbolism within the work perhaps derives from Rockwell’s deep familiarity with Old Master paintings and his delight in touting this understanding of art historical precedent in his compositions. This intellectual aspect of his work can be seen most overtly in paintings such as The Art Critic (Norman Rockwell Museum Collection) but also in more subtle ways, which manifest themselves in his studied compositions. Both the imagery and the meticulous manner of execution found in The Watchmaker can be seen as successor to Renaissance paintings, such as Petrus Christus’ A Goldsmith in His Shop (1449, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), where the artists have relished demonstrating their technical mastery in depicting a profusion of textures. The interior of the watchmaker’s shop afforded Rockwell a platform from which to highlight these skills. The depiction of glass—perhaps the hardest, most elusive surface to replicate—is here used to expert effect. The warm and subtle light from the lantern overhead also delicately bathes the surface, illuminating flecks of gold from the watches as well as the glint of the watchmaker’s glasses. As the eye dances from one part of the composition to the next, the myriad details are astounding.
To create the intricacy of The Watchmaker, Rockwell took a series of preparatory photographs, a technique he adopted in the 1940s. Rather than isolating his figure or figures against a blank background, as he had done before, he began to paint fully realized and often quite elaborate backgrounds in his best works from this period. In order to achieve the desired effect, Rockwell no longer relied solely upon professional models, enlisting them for hours on end, as he had done in his early years in New Rochelle. Rather, upon his move to Arlington, he began to incorporate photography into his creative process. This method meant he could stage elaborate tableaus as subjects and capture the various expressions of his sitters in an instant. Rarely satisfied with a single photograph, the finished illustration was often a composite of many. David Kamp writes of this exhaustive creative system, “First came brainstorming and a rough pencil sketch, then the casting of the models and the hiring of costumes and props, then the process of coaxing the right poses out of the models, then the snapping of the photo, then the composition of a fully detailed charcoal sketch, then a painted color sketch that was the exact size of the picture as it would be reproduced, and then, and only then, the final painting.” ("Norman Rockwell's American Dream," Vanity Fair, November 2009, p. 5) This new approach, coupled with towns around the country full of fresh faces willing to pose for the celebrity artist, meant a flurry of artistic inspiration.
Rockwell painted The Watchmaker in a small hotel room with dim light. Armed with several preparatory photographs of both the central characters, as well as the glass store front of the jewelry store, he painstakingly recreated the sanctuary of the elderly watchmaker honing his craft. Laura Claridge writes: “Throughout the spring and summer of 1948, Rockwell worked on several ads, including a first-rate oil painting for The Watchmakers of Switzerland. An old watch repairman is meticulously rendered, from his wrinkled, crepey hands, to his overgrown eyebrows…The crowded pictorial space of the work points to what will be a hallmark of Rockwell’s remarkable achievements in the next decade for the Post. In the ad, the total effect dramatically exceeds what corporations were accustomed to getting from the commercial artists they paid.” (Norman Rockwell: A Life, New York, 2001, p. 350) Through this consistent high level of execution throughout the room, Rockwell creates what Karal Ann Marling has described as “a kind of ‘Magical Realism,’” where the viewer’s eye can constantly move from object to object and experience every segment with “the same degree of intensity.” (Norman Rockwell: America's Most Beloved Painter, Cologne, Germany, 2005, p. 70) A similar effect has been experimented with in film. Todd McCarthy explains, “In cinematography [it] is called ‘deep focus,’ in which foreground and background objects possess an equal clarity, producing an effect that is sometimes hyper-realistic. This approach came into vogue in Hollywood in the early 1940s, due especially to the adventurous creativity of cinematographer Gregg Toland on William Wyler’s Little Foxes and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.” (in V.M. Mecklenburg, Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, p. 207)
Also as in 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 often viewed as both of a moment and simultaneously 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, Laurie Norton Moffatt writes, "His images convey our human shortcomings as well as our national ideals of freedom, democracy, equality, tolerance and common decency in ways that nobody could understand. He has become an American institution. Steven Spielberg recently said, 'Aside from being an astonishingly good storyteller, Rockwell spoke volumes about a certain kind of American morality.' It is a morality based on popular values and patriotism, a morality that yearns above all for goodness to trump evil." ("The People's Painter," Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, New York, 1999, p. 26)
In his autobiography My Adventures as an Illustrator, Norman Rockwell reminisced of his early career ambitions, “In those days the cover of the Post was (it still is, by the way) the greatest show window in America for an illustrator.” (Norman Rockwell: My Adventures as an Illustrator as told to Tom Rockwell, New York, 1979, p. 63) Beginning with his first cover published in 1916 and continuing through 1963, Rockwell entered American homes through 321 covers of The Saturday Evening Post over the course of his career as the nation’s leading illustrator. The Watchmaker, which literally depicts a shop window, exhibits the pinnacle of Rockwell’s achievement as a realist painter, compositional master and American storyteller. Drawing inspiration spanning the history of European and American art, and staking a case for his own position as a fine artist in the post-War era, The Watchmaker encases an exquisite range of detail and allusions for the inquisitive eye, while also presenting an image of youthful wonder and idealism contrasted with sage wisdom and expertise.