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May 3, 2021

The Story Behind Norman Rockwell’s Most Famous Cover “The Gossips” in 1948

Have you heard the story behind Norman Rockwell’s cover The Gossips? Some say the painting was Rockwell’s revenge on a woman in Arlington, Vermont, who’d spread an ugly rumor about him. He re-created the life of the rumor, beginning with an elderly woman whispering about Rockwell to a neighbor. From there the tale takes wing, speeding through town from one eager gossip to the next, until it comes back to Rockwell himself, who confronts the rumor’s originator in the bottom right.

The Gossips Oil on canvas, painting for The Saturday Evening Post cover, 1948.

Painted in 1948, Rockwell had the idea for The Gossips twenty years earlier but couldn’t quite get the ending until he thought to picture himself as the subject of the gossips’ circle; he used his friends and neighbors in Arlington, Vermont as the other figures in the painting. Thousands of letters were sent to The Saturday Evening Post asking what the gossip was they were passing along, but an answer was never given.

After this picture appeared on the cover of the Post, the woman who started the gossip not only never spoke to Rockwell again, she actually moved away. The lady in the middle row, both the second and third face from the left, is portrayed by Mary Rockwell, the artist’s second wife and mother of his children. And, of course, the artist himself, Rockwell is on the bottom row, the second and third faces from the right.

The Saturday Evening Post cover on March 6, 1948

The original sketch by Rockwell for the cover.

The Gossip is a manipulation of Rockwell’s talent of facial expression, despite only revealing heads he is able to perfectly create the persona of each and every one of the conjured figures. So expressive is each face one can completely imagine the rest of the body; such attention to detail is paid, each character is given a token item of dress, a hat, glasses, reflecting of character.

Hands of course are used, consistently betraying conversation as they exclaim throughout the chain of gossip that ends amusingly right where it started. As with much of Rockwell’s art, the image illustrates an aspect of life, humorous and identifiable we immediately connect with the painting, as was of course the advertisement-fuelled aim.

Photographic studies for Norman Rockwell’s The Gossips.

Photography has been a benevolent tool for artists from Thomas Eakins and Edgar Degas to David Hockney. And to illustrators, always on the lookout for better ways to meet deadlines, the camera has long been a natural ally. But the thousands of photographs Norman Rockwell created as studies for his iconic images are a case apart.

A natural storyteller, Rockwell envisioned his narrative scenarios down to the smallest detail. Yet at the easel he was an absolute literalist who rarely painted directly from his imagination. Instead, he first brought his ideas to life in studio sessions, staging photographs that are fully realized works of art in their own right. Selecting props and locations, choosing and directing his models, he carefully orchestrated each element of his design for the camera before beginning to paint. Meticulously composed and richly detailed, Norman Rockwell’s study photographs mirror his masterworks in a tangible parallel universe. Photography opened a door to the keenly observed authenticity that defines Norman Rockwell’s art. And for us today it is a revelation to discover that so many of his most memorable characters were, in fact, real people.

What a delight to be able see behind the scenes of one of Norman Rockwell’s most famous and most beloved works of art, The Gossips. It was lucky for Rockwell that he apparently had an endless supply of colorful friends and neighbors to pose for his many commissions. Here, some of the reference photos used by Rockwell:


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