Norman Rockwell - 20th C. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 14, 2019 | Phillips
  • Video

    Norman Rockwell, 'Before the Shot', Lot 8

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 14 October

  • Provenance

    Dr. Donald Campbell (gifted by the artist)
    Bernard Danenberg, New York
    Private Collection, United States (acquired from the above in 1968)
    Thence by descent to the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Fort Lauderdale Museum of the Arts; New York, Brooklyn Museum; Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art; San Antonio, Marion Koogler McNay Art Institute; Indianapolis Museum of Art; San Franciso, M. H. de Young Memorial Museum; Oklahoma Art Center; Omaha, Joslyn Art Center; Seattle Art Museum, Norman Rockwell: A Sixty Year Retrospective, February 7, 1972 - April 15, 1973, p. 118 (illustrated)
    Amherst, Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, An Alumnus Collects, November 12 - December 15, 1986, n.p. (illustrated); 1979-1988 (on extended loan)
    Stockbridge, Norman Rockwell Museum, 2006-2019 (on extended loan)

  • Literature

    This work is the first version of the painting for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post, March 15, 1958
    Laurie Norton Moffatt, Norman Rockwell: A Definitive Catalogue, vol. 1, Stockbridge, 1986, no. C487a, p. 217 (illustrated, p. 216)

  • Catalogue Essay

    “I guess everyone has sat in the doctor's office and examined his diplomas, wondering how good a doctor he was...” – Norman Rockwell

    Before the Shot is a crucial iteration of one of Norman Rockwell’s most iconic images, which graced the cover of the March 15, 1958 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. As circulation of the Post reached almost seven million in the 1950s and 1960s, the issue featuring the scene was published during the apex of the magazine’s success and after Rockwell had become a household name. Before the Shot was created during what is regarded as the pinnacle of Rockwell’s career and in the same decade as he painted some of his most renowned works, such as The Runaway, 1958, Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, and Saying Grace, 1951. Before the Shot not only testifies to the artist’s role as a compelling storyteller of American life but also critically reveals the painterly process behind Rockwell’s idiosyncratic style which has become a source of inspiration for countless contemporary artists. Dropping his trousers and standing on a wooden chair in a doctor’s office while awaiting a shot—a dose of gamma globulin according to Rockwell, which was commonly applied to one’s bottom to treat various ailments—a young boy is depicted curiously inspecting the diplomas on the wall, while the physician prepares a hypodermic syringe. The work engendered a multi-faceted reaction from the American public: while it exudes humor and nostalgia upon first glance, further contemplation evokes the relatable feeling of patient anxiety. Though Before the Shot is undoubtedly a quintessentially American image, it is also a timeless painting that touches on universal themes—such as the notion of a trip to the doctor’s office as a great social equalizer—that are still relevant today.

    Before the Shot takes its place in the perennial art historical legacy that investigates the ubiquitous doctor-patient relationship. Regardless of class, gender, or any other social or cultural characteristic, humans are typically born and die in the presence of a doctor, and all of us have experienced the discomfort from the various procedures that come with a doctor’s visit, from having our temperature taken to receiving an injection to disrobement. The art historical canon is replete with portrayals of these medical interactions, such as in Thomas Eakin’s The Gross Clinic, 1875, Philadelphia Museum of Art; Luke Fildes’s The Doctor, 1891, Tate, London; and Pablo Picasso’s Science and Charity, 1897, Museu Picasso, Barcelona. In 1341, Pietro Lorenzetti painted a despondent physician giving up on a case in Beata Umiltà Heals a Sick Nun, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin; over four centuries later, Vincent van Gogh depicted his personal doctor, melancholic yet compassionate, in Portrait of Dr. Gachet, 1890, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. The great universality of the apprehension felt during a doctor’s visit has more recently been exploited in The Dream of the Doctor, 1997, by John Currin, who has repeatedly acknowledged Rockwell’s influence on his oeuvre. Further, Damien Hirst’s medicine cabinets speak to the unavoidable pharmaceutical dimension of everyday life. Rockwell used Before the Shot to make light of contemporaneous medical advancements: the Post’s description of the cover reads, “The science of doctoring certainly has changed since the days symbolized by such potions as Grandma’s Sulphur-and-molasses, injected intramouth” (The Saturday Evening Post, Philadelphia, March 15, 1958, p. 3). In fact, the 1950s were characterized by many developments, from Jonas Salk’s invention of the polio vaccine to the synthesis and mass production of penicillin to the first use of chemotherapy. However, the present work acts as a larger meditation on the fact that—despite and because of these advancements—there is nothing more timelessly human than a trip to the doctor’s office.

    In Before the Shot, the physician’s hair radiates in turquoise and loose strokes of pastel pink, yellow, and cyan litter the floor and walls; in fact, the boy’s trousers dissipate into nearly total abstraction when examined up close. This unique, perhaps even gestural application of color—also present in pictures such as Schoolmaster Flogging Tom Sawyer, 1936, Mark Twain Museum, Hannibal, and Portrait of Matthew J. Culligan Hogan, circa 1960, Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge—is greatly evocative of the Impressionists' and Post-Impressionists’ experiments with light and opticality. Meanwhile, thanks to a 1950s artistic climate dominated by Abstract Expressionism, Impressionist painting, particularly Claude Monet’s late work, was “rediscovered” during the decade, undergoing a sensational and unprecedented revival of interest in the United States. This resurgence was catapulted not only by the New York School’s professed veneration for Monet’s achievements, but also by The Museum of Modern Art in New York’s first acquisition of a work by the artist in 1951 and the numerous exhibitions celebrating his oeuvre organized during the period. When viewing Rockwell’s remarkable use of color in Before the Shot through this lens, the work denotes an awareness of French modernism despite embodying an aesthetic that is his alone. In this sense, though Rockwell and the contemporaneous Abstract Expressionists arrived at dramatically contrasting visual languages, they were both similarly responding to recent additions to the Western canon—an engagement further evidenced by Rockwell’s inclusion of a Vincent van Gogh reproduction in his Triple Self-Portrait, 1960, Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge.

    Typical of his working process for his major compositions, Rockwell used numerous photographs—which he directed as scrupulously as one would a film shoot—for Before the Shot. Many of these images were taken inside his personal physician Dr. Donald Campbell’s office in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Rockwell’s home from 1953 until his death in 1978. Dr. Campbell, whose name can be read on his medical certificate, served as the model for the doctor, and eight-year-old Eddie Locke, whom Rockwell selected from the lunchroom at Stockbridge Plain Elementary School who is also depicted in The Runaway, posed as the patient. After selecting the most narrative-driven photographs, Rockwell chose specific compositional elements from each and began a detailed charcoal drawing to refine the story. Subsequently, he would photograph the drawing, reduce its size, and execute a color study on top of it in order to plan the palette of the painting. Occasionally, as in Breaking Home Ties, 1954, and Before the Shot, Rockwell created more than one full-size version in order to further develop his ideas. The penultimate step in Rockwell’s laborious artistic process, the present work significantly reveals the painterly approach that the artist used for his distinctively crisp, realistic covers of the Post. Indeed, while containing the same iconic imagery, the present work presents a sharp contrast to the sterile white floors and teal cabinet depicted in the more traditional, clinical iteration of Before the Shot that was selected as the cover for the publication.

    While Before the Shot betrays a sense of chance encounter, it was actually a picture of meticulous deliberation for Rockwell; he punctiliously constructed every aspect of its subject, palette, and composition. Though he originally considered seating the doctor at his desk, Rockwell decided to imbue the painting with tension and suspense by instead positioning him turned away from the patient while filling the syringe. Rockwell also assiduously selected the exact wooden chairs and linoleum floor, making careful decisions that are evident in preliminary studies for the painting. Once these compositional questions had been resolved, however, Rockwell still faced one last peculiar issue. According to the artist, “this cover occasioned a great argument among my family and friends: how much of the boy's fanny should be showing. Some said more, some less. I finally locked the door of the studio and, after communing with myself for some time, lowered his pants to their present position, a compromise which avoids shocking nudity and yet reveals enough to provoke humor" (Norman Rockwell, quoted in The Norman Rockwell Album, New York, 1961, p. 162). Locke even recalled Rockwell showing up to his family’s house unannounced, carrying the finished painting, to ask if he had flawlessly captured the grey-green color of the boy’s pants. Showcasing Rockwell’s painstaking concern with achieving a perfect balance, Before the Shot sits in the equilibrium between crudeness and humor, anxiety and lightheartedness, youthful nostalgia and present relief.

    The doctor-patient relationship is one that Rockwell knew intimately: his family relocated from Vermont to Stockbridge in order for his wife to be treated at a psychiatric hospital in town, and he himself subsequently befriended and was treated by renowned psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. The artist also had three young boys at the time, who no doubt provided him with much opportunity to study children apprehensively interacting with physicians and ensured that he was well-informed of medicinal advancements. The medical legacy of Before the Shot was further sustained when Rockwell gifted the work to Dr. Campbell himself—even originally writing “To my friend Dr. Don Campbell, Norman Rockwell” on the painting’s floor before later concealing the inscription—who then sold it to a family of fellow doctors, in whose collection it has remained ever since. The work captures an amusing moment relatable to everyone, however; as Rockwell has acknowledged, "I guess everyone has sat in the doctor's office and examined his diplomas, wondering how good a doctor he was...” (Norman Rockwell, quoted in The Norman Rockwell Album, New York, 1961, p. 162). It is this communal experience that makes Before the Shot not only a hallmark image of 1950s American culture, but also one that continues to universally resonate today.

  • Artist Biography

    Norman Rockwell

    Few artists have made as much of an impact on the American visual culture as Norman Rockwell. A master draughtsman and a keen observer of the quotidian, Rockwell produced an immense body of work noted for its vivid and loving depictions of the everyday graces of mid-20th century life, providing the pictorial framework for how Americans conceive of themselves then and today. His aspirational paintings lifted the American spirit during its darkest times but to this day reassure people worldwide of the fundamental values universal truths.

    Rockwell’s long and prodigious career began when he was only 22, when he contributed his first cover to The Saturday Evening Post. This precocious achievement presaged not only the artist’s immense successes contributing another 321 covers for this hugely-circulated magazine, the body of work that cemented his status as the leading chronicler of the American experience, but also his crowning as one of the most beloved American artists of all time. The many iconic images Rockwell produced and popularized are ubiquitous records of the American ethos.

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Property from a Family Collection


Before the Shot

signed “Norman Rockwell” lower center
oil on canvas
29 x 27 in. (73.5 x 68.5 cm.)
Painted in 1958.

$2,500,000 - 4,500,000 

Sold for $4,700,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th C. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 14 November 2019