Noel Rockmore was born in New York City on December 15, 1928. His family joined the growing group of artistic American expatriates in Europe in 1932, when Rockmore was three. They settled in Cannes, near the house where Renoir spent his final years. These early years brought Rockmore in contact with the spirit of European art. His parents acquired works at the prevailing low prices including bronzes by Bourdelle and Gaston LaChaise and a Renoir study in oil of “Gabrielle”.
The family returned to the United States in 1933. Rockmore and his sister Deborah were precocious children. Rockmore started to play the violin before he was four and Deborah studied piano. Soon they were performing impromptu recitals. Rockmore was given a fine small Italian violin once owned by Ruggerio Ricci. He learned piano and guitar with little effort. For a while he and Deborah attended Julliard School of Music, where Rockmore studied with Fraulein Schroeder, a superb pedagogue.
In 1937, at age eight, Rockmore attended art classes at Begeary’s Academy. He showed talent and was encouraged to excell in draughtsmanship. Developing a brilliant realistic style, he was, by 1939, painting seriously and art had become his principal love.
Friends of the family included Ernest Hemingway, George Gershwin, Dr. Thomas Mann, Leonard Bernstein, Mark Blitzstein and the puppeteer, Bill Baird. Contact with such a variety of creative people helped to establish in Rockmore the respect for professionalism which marks his career. He received criticism and encouragement from Raphael Soyer, Kuniyoshi, John Koch, and Henry Francis Taylor, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the time (1948).
At age 16, Rockmore was a frequent visitor to the Metropolitan Museum. A self-assigned project was to copy the Rembrandt self-portrait and other Rembrandt paintings. The discipline helped influence his style and contributed to the exquisite detail found in his later works.
In 1947, for one week, Rockmore attended classes instructed by Julian Levi at the Art Students League. He became fascinated with the self-portrait as a means of commenting on the world. The first oil he considered successful, a self-portrait was completed in 1947, at age 18.
In 1948, when the artist was 19, Joseph Hirshhorn purchased a major Rockmore painting, “Self-Portrait with Model”, 40"x50". “Tragic Composition”, a 70"x80" oil, subsequently destroyed, was also painted by the artist in 1948.
The artist’s first studio away from home was in the Cooper Union Complex on Ninth Street, and the years 1947 and 1948 found him painting the street derelicts of the Bowery. A series of seventy-five Bowery drawings were produced. Rockmore also spent these years in the Museum of Natural History, and hundreds of drawings of monkeys and mummies were executed at this time. During this period Allan Gruskin, the director of the Midtown Gallery, came to see his work. He was much impressed by the work of the young artist.
In his paintings of the Bowery outcasts, some with crutches and bandages, others lying in doorways, Rockmore depicted literally the world around him without social comment. He remains an uninvolved observer. He does not sympathize or evaluate. This detachment continues as an important part of Rockmore’s style to the present.
Several years were spent in Coney Island doing a massive series of paintings, drawings, and thirty-five extremely complex etchings, executed in 1950.
Rockmore’s preoccupation with death and humanity’s decline began to manifest itself in these early days. While on his wedding trip to Mexico in 1951, his car hit a cow and was demolished. The newlywed couple was unhurt, although the bride was somewhat nonplused when Rockmore elected to do a study of the dying animal instead of seeking aid.
During the early fifties, an unending stream of maturing works were produced by the artist from his Manhattan studio. In his pursuit of subject matter, he gained access to the back stage area of the circus and a new world unfolded. For several weeks he traveled with them sketching and painting constantly. Rockmore executed three hundred circus paintings and drawings, including the series, “Flaying of the Tiger.”
Xavier Gonzales, Raphael Soyer, Jack Levine, and Fletcher Martin encouraged Rockmore to ignore the art fads and persevere in his own direction. Central Park, Coney Island, and the circus all fascinated him with their masses of people, the noise, the confusion, and the inevitable examples of human frailty and decline.
Recognition began to come in 1952 with the inclusion, in a drawing exhibition, at the Metropolitan. In 1953 he was shown at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia and the Butler Institute of American Art in Ohio.
In 1953 a major 8 foot oil painting, “Three Men on a Beach”, shown at the Salpeter Gallery, was reproduced in the New York Times. Critic Stewart Preston wrote, “...a brooding air is exuded by Noel’s...paintings at the Salpeter Gallery...is a young artist of no little skill as a draughtsman, who observes human beings intently and interprets their moods with melancholy sensitivity, particularly his autobiographical work.” Noel adopted the Rockmore name in 1959. His mother was Gladys Rockmore Davis; his father Floyd Davis.
In 1958 Joseph Hirshhorn purchased nine Rockmore paintings, including a self-portrait, at the prestigious Harry Salpeter Gallery, in New York. All are now in the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.
“Feople” is a word which Rockmore coined in describing individuals who are his ideal models and provide the proper stimulus for his paintings. It is not a prerequisite that they be aged or handicapped or deformed, only that they lend themselves to his distortions.
Rockmore won the Tupperware Fellowship Award in 1955. In 1956, his work was exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Later that year, he won the Hallgarten Prize at the National Academy of Design and the Tiffany Fellowship Award.
1959-61 was an egg tempera phase of the artist, when twenty-five major paintings were done.
Xavier Gonzales recommended that Rockmore visit New Orleans in 1959 and arranged for him to obtain a studio in the house of Paul Ninas, a respected New Orleans painter. His discovery of the New Orleans scene was the end of a quest. He observed that the French Quarter architecture corresponded with his sense of fantasy, and that he had only to record what actually existed to create the moods which he wished to convey.
Shortly after his arrival in New Orleans, Rockmore met music lover Bill Russell. Rockmore considers Bill to be the greatest death symbol he has ever painted, and many oils, drawings and pastels were executed with Russell as the sitter. Rockmore has just completed nineteen watercolors from life of Mr. Russell, all executed in 1980.
In 1963, approximately 150 oil portraits and over 200 small temperas on panel of the Preservation Hall musicians were produced by Rockmore. LSU Press published “Preservation Hall Portraits,” reproducing 100 of the paintings in 1965.
Rockmore continued to exhibit in New York, commuting between the two cities. The Greer Gallery showed his work and in 1963 he was included in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The Preservation Hall series was shown in a number of galleries around the country. Trips to Morocco and Israel in 1966 and 1967 produced a remarkable series of oils, temperas and watercolors of a more poetic, even compassionate, nature.
Trips to San Francisco in 1967 and 1969 to visit his sister resulted in a major series of fantasy paintings, and in 1967, Victor Potamkin purchased a large number of oil paintings, and commissioned Rockmore to execute seventy-nine paintings of Israel. The artist also produced three sketchbooks and many watercolors of Israel.
The late 60's saw a major series of extremely large works (8 foot paintings) done by Rockmore, including six major oils of his parents and portraits of Vincent Price and Henry Miller.
On his return to New Orleans in 1970, Rockmore spent several months on his “Homage to the French Quarter.” This canvas, which in its final state included sixty-eight personalities of the Quarter, developed into a magnum opus. This, subsequently, was followed by “Homage to New York,” which includes forty-six artistic acquaintances and more recently, “Homage to the Café des Artistes,” an intriguing and complex work which depicts many of the artists, writers and New York personalities who frequent the well-known 67th Street restaurant. To date, three New York and three New Orleans Homages have been executed. The latest “Homage to New Orleans III; A confederacy of Dunces,” with 28 Quarterites, was completed in Nov. 80.
The 1971 “Scrapbook Series” of the artist was a series of forty paintings based on material of the 1880's, and during his career, to date, Rockmore has painted over one hundred major paintings in his “Table Series,” a round table with two or more seated figures.
In 1972, Rockmore was commissioned to execute twenty-seven paintings in Paris for George Wein, who founded the Newport Jazz Festival, and a small but major series of works of Venice was also done at this time.
1974 to 1977 Rockmore painted four murals: a one hundred inch mural, in 1974, for Café des Artistes, New York; a sixteen foot mural for Coriander Restaurant, New York, 1976; a twenty-four foot mural for a 67th Street restaurant, New York; and in 1977, an eleven foot mural for a lounge in New Orleans.
Throughout the mid-to-late 1970's Rockmore continued to exhibit in New York and New Orleans.
The story, of course, is unfinished. New, violent drawings of 1974 may indicate a new direction. And they may not. Fortunately art cannot be explained, only felt. The newer it is, the stronger we feel it, and the less able we are to account for its power. Noel Rockmore’s unique vision and art helps us better understand the outside world; its misery, pathos, brutality and grandeur.
Editor’s Note (Sandra Zahn Oreck): Since 1937, at least six thousand paintings, drawings, etchings, and lithographs, and countless sketches, have been created...they are scattered throughout the world; many in private collections never seen publicly.
As this goes to press, a major breakthrough Is occurring in Rockmore’s paintings...the inclusion of humor. “The Swimming Lesson,” number one is a series of six tempera paintings, and four gem-like paintings just completed, mark a completely new direction.
The future work of Rockmore, whose energy is boundless, and fecundity limitless, is beyond predictability.