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Norman Rockwell and Carl Spitzweg: The Question of Academic Impact

Anyone who is involved in academic work realizes that the language of ‘impact’ and ‘outcomes’ has come to dominate the notion of ‘excellence in research’. This is, of course, why there have been previous attempts in Australia to rank excellence (such as the 2010 ERA Journal Rankings, A*-C) and why there remain notions of measuring outcomes, regardless of whether the ideas underlying a systematized collection of various forms of data will actually fit with the particular field. For those who are interested in a thoughtful critique of ‘metrics’ I would suggest the paper published by Andrew Bonnell earlier this year.

A second key point is that it may actually take some time for the impact of a given publication to become obvious. What I wish to consider in this brief paper is that the impact of research can also sometimes be fairly unusual, but no less significant for that.

In particular, it appears that one major result of a paper that I published in 2013––The Bookworm: Norman Rockwell’s Tribute to Carl Spitzweg––is that a museum in the United States has now received a significant donation of this major painting (The Bookworm) by the American artist Norman Rockwell and placed it deliberately and clearly in direct comparison to the earlier work of the German artist, Carl Spitzweg.

In one sense, this is also a story of the curious ‘online life’ of articles, as my original publication (in the field of illustration) went online through the Rockwell Center. As I am sure we are all aware, any material on the internet can come to be used in some surprising ways.

My own paper explicitly examined the manner in which the famous American illustrator, Norman Rockwell, paid homage to the nineteenth century German artist Spitzweg. Both men were very much interested in evoking character, and in constructing humorous scenes, but it was my contention that Rockwell’s Bookworm (of 1926) referred back to the famous Spitzweg Bookworm (of 1852) and formed a kind of Rückenfigur of the original painting. What has delighted me no end is that the article has a continuing impact, though in three curious contexts.

First, and most importantly, the paintings are now placed in reference to one another in the collection of the Grohmann Museum, at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. This is detailed in a blog post by Katherine Wikoff entitled ‘Norman Rockwell’s The Bookworm Redux.’ The Grohmann Museum announcement itself identifies one of the papers that I also relied on (Palmer, 2011). Palmer argued more generally in favour of a Romanticist influence on Rockwell. However, although the announcement for the exhibition makes comparable points to my own work, they do not actually reference the original paper:

Original (Rockwell Center) Grohmann Museum (announcement)
‘When stood alongside one another, it is clear that The Bookworm of 1926 derives from Spitzweg’s painting in title, structure, form and topic.

As Palmer noted, Rockwell was undoubtedly aware of Spitzweg, given that he had no less than three books on the German artist in his own library.’

‘In examining both paintings, it is doubtless that Rockwell’s painting was modeled after Spitzweg’s.

As Palmer (2011) has noted, Rockwell was strongly influenced by the German Romantic painters, as he had three books on Spitzweg in his personal library….’

This might be considered purely coincidental, given that Palmer writes generally on Romanticist influence on Rockwell, except for the fact that he does not deal with The Bookworm at any point in his paper, whereas it was the entire focus of my own. Indeed, the paper was initially accepted because the links between the ‘Bookworms’ had not been previously established, in the expert view of the Rockwell Center itself.

But can we assume that this narrative of connection directly links to the painting at its sale? As it turns out, yes. The second curious impact of my paper relates to the actual sale of Norman Rockwell’s Bookworm through Sotheby’s auction house in 2015, for the astonishing sum of $US3.8 million. Sotheby’s, when first announcing the sale of this painting, apparently decided to pay its own form of homage to my published paper, but without citing it at any point.

Original Sotheby’s (Initial announcement)
Rockwell’s homage to Carl Spitzweg’s painting The Bookworm (Der Bücherwurm, 1852)….

When stood alongside one another, it is clear that The Bookworm of 1926 derives from Spitzweg’s painting in title, structure, form and topic. Yet his figure was both literally and figuratively the reverse…of that depicted by Spitzweg. The similarities of composition are immediately obvious, and it appears clear that this illustration was a form of tribute to Spitzweg. …

The Bookworm of Spitzweg is a solid German burgher, dressed in a coat and eminently respectable…. Rockwell’s Bookworm is far more eccentric but the illustration is just as gentle in its humour. With his long coat, rather battered hat and odd shoes (one black, one brown), this Bookworm’s coat has been buttoned incorrectly, and he trails what appears to be the tie for his umbrella in near exact symmetry to Spitzweg’s handkerchief. Rockwell has also depicted a far more absentminded reader…..

The setting, too, has taken an interesting turn. From Sptizweg’s action inside a large library, in Rockwell we move outdoors to a rather random arrangement on a bookstall.

The collection is led by Norman Rockwell’s The Bookworm from 1926, which is considered a tribute to German artist Carl Spitzweg’s painting Der Bücherwurm from 1852 (estimate $1.5–2.5 million).        Rockwell’s homage reverses the stance of the original painting both literally and figuratively: whereas Spitzweg depicts a respectably-dressed German burgher in a large library, Rockwell paints an eccentric and absentminded reader lost amongst his findings at an outdoor bookstand.


The final catalogue expanded on the original offering, while also making some comparable points to the original 2013 publication.

Thirdly, the nature of the internet being what it is, there are now numerous references to my work on Flickr and Pinterest. This is because people have ‘borrowed’ the image of the Bookworm from the Rockwell Center, but neglected to remove the tags. At the very least, it shows the continuing public interest in Norman Rockwell himself and the great delight that people take in his Bookworm illustration. One hopes that it might also lead them to consider Spitzweg’s oeuvre, and the nature of ‘homage.’

What this leads me back to is the question of significance and the topic of ‘outcomes.’ On one level, my publication is irrelevant within Australian models of ‘excellence’ for research–-in which regard my journal articles count much more than an online article. Yet I find myself, in some ways, far more interested in the convoluted way that my work has had such a practical outcome: that these two paintings are now directly (and rightly) brought into relationship with one another. The question remains: what box can an academic ever tick to indicate this impact?