Norman Rockwell - 20th c. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Monday, December 7, 2020 | Phillips

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  • Exemplary of Norman Rockwell’s extraordinary storytelling ability, The Peephole graced the cover of the August 30, 1958 issue of The Saturday Evening Post and was gifted from the artist to the publication's editor Peter Elliott Schruth. The painting’s subject of a pitcher winding up is shown from the unconventional vantage point of a knothole in a wooden fence, positioning the viewer as an eager child covertly watching a baseball game.


    America’s national pastime was an apt motif for Rockwell that featured in such renowned works as Hundredth Year of Baseball (Baseball Player and Umpire), 1939, and Game Called Because of Rain (Tough Call), 1949, both National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, New York; as well as in The Dugout, 1948, Brooklyn Museum; The Rookie, 1957, Private Collection; and Gramps at the Plate, 1916, Private Collection. The sport and its place in American culture acted as a touchstone from which he could explore universal themes, and in the case of the present work, memories of youthful excitement.



    Speaking to The Peephole’s transportive power, the accompanying text in The Post issue invoked this deeply atmospheric reminiscence:


    “Oh, to be a boy again—or for that matter a girl—and relive the joy of going to a ball game through a knothole. Most knotholes are gradually made by Mother Nature in her unhurried way, but if she is too slow, a boy can help her along, removing the knot with his trusty jackknife or by giving it a good swat with a stone. As you no doubt recall, this should be done secretly, preferably at night; otherwise the caretaker of the ball grounds may chase the boy with a stick and then nail a piece of tin over the new hole, a darned mean thing to do. Sometimes a knothole is made with a brush… Viewers of this game will note that they get as clear a picture as they do on their TV sets. In color too.”i


    Titans of American Storytelling


    The Peephole comes to auction from the formidable collection of storied television producers Thomas Miller and Robert Boyett, who found an affinity with Rockwell’s virtuosic knack for visual narrative. The legendary couple behind Miller-Boyett Productions developed some of the most influential and iconic sitcoms in television history—from Happy Days to Laverne & Shirley to Full House. The Rockwell pictures that Mr. Boyett and Mr. Miller, who died earlier this year, collected betray a compelling dialogue between three great American storytellers.


    Thomas Miller and Robert Boyett

    "In each episode of our television shows, we made sure to have characters make some form of human connection. Rockwell did the very same."
    — Robert Boyett

    Director of the American Way


    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 The Peephole. Rockwell then chose specific compositional elements to construct his narrative before beginning to meticulously translate it into paint; he sometimes even kept richly-detailed objects near him for reference, such as a wood slab with a knothole in order to achieve the present work’s visual exactitude. The final work would then be reproduced in The Post, which at that time had a circulation near seven million in the 1950s and 1960s.


    Reference photo for The Peephole, 1958. Norman Rockwell Museum Collection, Stockbridge, MA, Copyright © 1958 the Norman Rockwell Family Entities

    Given his meticulous method and its cinematic result, it is unsurprising that many of the artist’s most ardent collectors are some of Hollywood’s most prominent directors, including George Lucas and Steven Spielberg—whose robust private holdings of Rockwell’s work were on view in the 2010 exhibition Telling Stories at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.


    Not only testifying to the artist’s role as a compelling storyteller of American life, The Peephole exemplifies Rockwell’s idiosyncratic style which has become a source of inspiration for countless contemporary artists. “When this last half century is explored by the future, a few paintings will continue to communicate with the same immediacy and veracity that they have today,” Thomas S. Buechner, the former director of the Brooklyn Museum, wrote. “I believe that some of Mr. Rockwell’s will be among them.”ii

    "[Rockwell is a] masterful storyteller who could distill a narrative into a single frame."
    — Virginia Mecklenberg

    Reference photo for The Peephole, 1958. Norman Rockwell Museum Collection, Stockbridge, MA, Copyright © 1958 the Norman Rockwell Family Entities

    Echoes of Surrealism


    The negotiation between the seen and the unseen—as implied by the peephole—was a leitmotif during the mid-20th century, often found in Surrealist works and exhibition design. Magritte famously depicted a peephole in his 1932-1935 masterpiece The Eye, Art Institute of Chicago. A decade later in 1942, architect and sculptor Frederick Kiesler was selected to design Peggy Guggenheim’s seminal Art of This Century Gallery in New York, and one aspect of his innovative approach involved installing a spiral ship’s wheel that rotated the contents of Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise—which only became visible to viewers by looking through a peephole. Duchamp would go on to take this idea as a central component for his last masterpiece, Étant donnés, 1946-1966, Philadelphia Museum of Art, a three-dimensional environmental assemblage inviting the viewer to look through two small peepholes carved into a solid wooden door at a vignette which, like The Peephole, holds us at a distance, allowing us only a glimpse of the tableau we’re meant to be observing.


    Film still from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, 1954

    The motif extended beyond the confines of European modernism, taking root in American culture during the 1940s and 1950s, becoming a recurring theme in a range of 20th century visual media, from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece Rear Window to Roy Lichtenstein’s I Can See the Whole Room...and There's Nobody in It!, 1961. In the latter, the perspective is flipped: a man looks through a hole in a door into the room the viewer is in, positioning us not as observer but instead as observee. What fascinated as diverse a group as Rockwell, Duchamp, and Lichtenstein about peepholes was its interrogation not only of what we see but how we see it.


    This emphasis on looking is, at its core, a metaphor for the experience of viewing art. Though a painting can surely feel transportive—as The Peephole does in positioning us as an eager child secretly watching a baseball game through a knothole—the viewer is still unable to truly access the representation, and the canvas acts as a physical barrier itself. Just as a child would try to piece together a baseball game with this limited field of vision by listening to referee calls or watching the infielders’ actions, we attempt to understand a painting by looking around a composition for contextual hints. Reaching pop culture, Surrealism, Pop Art, and beyond, this investigation of perception situates Rockwell’s work within one of the most significant concerns of modernism and postmodernism.


    [left] Roy Lichtenstein, I Can See the Whole Room and There’s Nobody in it…, 1961. Private Collection, Artwork © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein [right] René Magritte, The Eye, 1932-1935. The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY, Artwork © 2020 C. Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


    Through the Peephole


    The present work photographed with the artist for The Saturday Evening Post, August 30, 1958. Published by Curtis Publishing, Artwork © 1958 SEPS. Licensed by Curtis Licensing, Indianapolis, IN. All Rights Reserved

    Through Rockwell’s signature use of trompe l'oeil, The Peephole takes its place in a rich history of illusionism from Baroque art to Surrealism. Indeed, the paintwork is so convincing that when The Post’s Leonard Wexler transported the painting to the studio for Rockwell to incorporate a final change, he got a glimpse of the artist’s source, a small wooden board with a hole in it, and asserted that “the painting looked more like wood than the wood did.”iii Rockwell was incredibly meticulous and specific about his use of material which furthered this optical illusion: The Peephole was executed on panel, which he used for relatively few works and was often a reference to wooden subject matter itself—such as the hardwood floors in Cheerleaders, 1952, Private Collection. The blurred division between image and reality is further called into question by Rockwell’s insertion of actual metal nails into the picture plane, oscillating The Peephole between representation and object, painting and assemblage.

    "[Rockewell’s] things are so universal that he would be appreciated everywhere."
    — George Grosz

    Reference photo for The Peephole, 1958. Norman Rockwell Museum Collection, Stockbridge, MA, Copyright © 1958 the Norman Rockwell Family Entities 
  • An American Pastime

  • i The Saturday Evening Post, p. 3.
    ii Thomas S. Buechner, The Norman Rockwell Album, New York, 1961, p. 128.
    iii Leonard Wexler, quoted in The Saturday Evening Post, Philadelphia, August 30, 1958, p. 80.

    • Provenance

      Peter Elliott Schruth (editor of The Saturday Evening Post), Philadelphia (gifted by the artist circa 1959)
      By descent in the family and sold: Sotheby’s, New York, May 27, 1999, lot 171A
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Literature

      The Saturday Evening Post, August 30, 1958 (illustrated on the cover and p. 3; illustration of the artist working on the present work in his studio, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, p. 80)
      Thomas Buechner, Norman Rockwell: Artist and Illustrator, New York, 1970, no. 522, n.p. (illustrated)
      Mary Moline, Norman Rockwell Encyclopedia: A Chronological Catalog of the Artist’s Work 1910-1978, Indianapolis, 1979, fig. 1-409, p. 82 (illustrated, p. 83; titled as Knothole Baseball)
      Laurie Norton Moffatt, Norman Rockwell: A Definitive Catalogue, vol. 1, Stockbridge, 1986, no. C489, p. 219 (cover for The Saturday Evening Post, August 30, 1958 illustrated)
      Richard Halpern, Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence, Chicago, 2006, pp. 41, 137
      Christopher Finch, Norman Rockwell: 332 Magazine Covers, New York, 2013, p. 397 (illustrated, p. 325)

    • 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.

      View More Works

Property from the Collection of Thomas Miller and Robert Boyett


The Peephole

signed “NORMAN ROCKWELL” lower left
oil on panel
14 1/4 x 11 1/4 in. (36.2 x 28.6 cm)
Painted in 1958.

This work is accompanied by an original copy of the August 30, 1958 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

Full Cataloguing

$1,000,000 - 1,500,000 

Sold for $2,087,000

Contact Specialist

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


20th c. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 7 December 2020