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. Painted at the precipice of his mature career and his most productive work for The Saturday Evening Post, Jeff Raleigh’s Piano Solo embodies the realism, engaging character studies and nostalgic optimism of Rockwell’s best works. Inviting the viewer to also watch in awe as the virtuoso mesmerizes his audience at the piano keys, with help from complex compositional design the present work beautifully communicates the splendor of the universal language of music in a dynamic and innovative fashion.
The present work was published as an illustration for Edmund Ware’s short story “Jeff Raleigh’s Piano Solo” in the May 27th, 1939 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Serially published as 26 stories, Edmund Ware’s chronicles of the trials and tribulations of the Raleigh family followed parents Jeff and Alice and their children James, Joan and Charles. “Jeff Raleigh’s Piano Solo” details Jeff’s ceaseless pursuit of the perfect piano for Alice as a birthday gift. Realizing his naivety in this area, Jeff implores a local music professor, Andrew Crawford, to aid him in his search. Crawford also happens to be hosting a famous Russian pianist, Jan Ivan Sabinsky, and the three men band together in hunt for the perfect piano. Surrounded by a sea of pianos in the store’s warehouse, Crawford and Sabinsky delight in trying out each option while simultaneously treating Raleigh to whirlwind performances—filling the cavernous space with melodious tunes until eventually Raleigh selects a winning piano.
In the present painting, Rockwell chooses to illustrate the moment when “Sabinsky exalted the room with the difficult cadenza section of Tchaikovsky’s B Flat Minor Concerto. Jeff Raleigh leaned entranced against a wall, almost weeping in the great hunger and the overwhelming sense of beauty with which music sometimes fills the souls of listeners who cannot read or play a note. ‘Oh Lord, he said prayerfully, ‘I wish Alice was here. Oh, I wish she could hear this.’” (E. Ware, “Jeff Raleigh’s Piano Solo,” The Saturday Evening Post, May 27, 1939, p. 108) Hypnotized by the symphonic sounds radiating nearby, Raleigh is perched next to Sabinsky in complete entrancement as Crawford leans inquisitively over his shoulder so as to admire more closely. With a cigarette casually dangling out of his mouth, Sabinsky passionately attacks the piano’s keys, his right hand arches in preparation as we collectively wait for him to strike another note.
With Ware’s sprawling account of the piano hunt spread over several pages of the magazine, Rockwell certainly had his choice of key passages to portray, but characteristically chose to evoke the admiration and appreciation of music in the story, rather than a more dramatic moment. Indeed, Rockwell explained, “Many illustrators of fiction look through a story to find the most dominant or dramatic incident, and illustrate that. I prefer to discover the atmosphere of a story – the feeling behind it – and then to express this basic quality.” (as quoted in Norman Rockwell: Illustrator, p. 79)
While purposefully choosing a contemplative moment of awe, Rockwell employs several compositional devices to amplify the visual drama of the scene. Most significantly, he angles the perspective so that the viewer looks down onto this private concert—a practice he also used while making preparatory photographs for the painting. Such a perspective allows Rockwell to boast his trademark meticulous attention to detail, from the fastidious, gleaming reflections in the music stand to the finely rendered inner workings of the instrument.
By means of the surrounding pianos, Rockwell also inserts a number of dramatic diagonal boundaries that intersect the picture and heighten the energy of the composition. The artist rendered similarly complex arrangements—using elements of the representational scene to create abstract patterns—in some of his most well-known compositions, including Shuffleton’s Barbershop (1950), Red Sox Locker Room (The Rookie) (1957), What Makes It Tick? (The Watchmaker) (1948), Road Block (1949), among others. In the present work, Rockwell takes the practice to a new level, with numerous forms intersecting one another. One line even divides Raleigh’s enraptured face from Sabinsky, who is fixated on the task at hand. This stylistic decision allows Rockwell to use the physical boundaries within his immersive composition to symbolically divide his characters so as to underscore the gulf between genius performer and awestruck audience.
Equally, Rockwell’s intense angles lend a modern element to the painting. In fact, the intense diagonals almost recall the musically-inclined abstract paintings of Wassily Kandinsky, such as Composition 8 (1923, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York). Kandinsky frequently explored the connections between art and music in his work and was a noted advocate of synesthesia—the idea of producing one sense by stimulating another. Likewise, in Jeff Raleigh’s Piano Solo, Rockwell’s narrative feels fully immersive and palpable, as if one can hear the music coming from the work itself.
In the lower right foreground and scattered onto the dazzling emerald background, Rockwell includes sheet music, further underscoring the acoustic tones of the painting. Musical subject matter was one of Rockwell’s favorite subgenres, to which he repeatedly returned in his work. Many of his most compelling paintings, such as Cellist and Little Girl Dancing (Meeting of the Minds) (1923), Barbershop Quartet (1936) and Piano Tuner (1947), exude that same love and appreciation for music as in Jeff Raleigh’s Piano Solo. 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.” (My Adventures as an Illustrator, New York, 1994, p. 63)
Rockwell commented in 1946: “It is more difficult to make an illustration than to paint a cover, as you must customarily interpret the author’s text. Yet some of my illustration is the best work that I have done.” (as quoted in A.L. Guptill, Norman Rockwell: Illustrator, New York, 1946, p. 71) Jeff Raleigh’s Piano Solo is indeed among the best of Rockwell’s illustrations, capturing the content of his commission but also elevating his specific subject matter to embody a universal visualization of music appreciation.