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Norman Rockwell's Son Shapes Fitler Square With Playful Monster Fountain
By Stacia Friedman
When children play at the Markward Recreation Center inside Schuylkill River Park, they are more likely to shriek with laughter than fear at the Monster Capital Fountain.
This was exactly what sculptor Peter Rockwell (1936-2020) had in mind when he was commissioned to design it in 1977 for the City’s Percent For Art program.
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The intertwined monsters spouting water atop a 12-foot brushed concrete column are representative of the sculptor’s fascination with medieval gargoyles and his irrepressible sense of humor.
The third son of famed illustrator Norman Rockwell, Rockwell had no intention of following in his father’s footsteps. An English major at Haverford College, his passion was not for art, but for fencing. However, in his junior year he took a sculpture course, fell in love with it and enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA).
“My father said being a painter like my oldest brother wasn’t very economic, and being a poet like my middle brother was less economic. But the worst thing he could think of was to be a sculptor,” commented Rockwell in a 2009 video.
Sometimes, parental disapproval is all an aspiring artist needs to rise to the challenge.
In 1961, Rockwell received a PAFA fellowship to study sculpture in Italy for six months and went to Rome with his young wife and child. This was during the same period of time that one of his father’s covers for the Saturday Evening Post took a stand supporting the deeply contested school integration in the South.
Immersed in the art and antiquities of Europe, Rockwell and his family remained in Italy for over fifty years where he, literally, carved out a career as a sculptor.
During the 1960s, the strength of the US dollar in Italy made bronze foundries significantly more accessible, paving the way for Peter Rockwell's burgeoning career in sculpture.
His breakthrough came in 1967 with The Women’s Memorial Bell Tower at New Hampshire's Cathedral of the Pines. This project, a collaborative fusion of his father's designs and his own sculpting skills, featured large bronze plaques and catapulted Rockwell into the spotlight. Following this success, he secured several prestigious commissions, notably crafting eleven of the 112 gargoyles that adorn the Washington National Cathedral.
This begs the question: why would a 20th century sculptor, a peer of Claes Oldenburg and Henry Moore, look to medieval gargoyles for inspiration? Especially when Rockwell claimed that his influences included Donatello, Rodin and Bernini.
The answer is as unique as Rockwell himself. He simply was fascinated by 17th century French architecture festooned with these functional monsters.
Those crouching monsters atop Notre Dame and other medieval cathedrals contain passageways that carry rainwater that spout from the gargoyle’s mouth. Besides protecting churches from erosion, gargoyles were believed to scare demons and evil away, as well as warn the pious of the wages of sin.
Gargoyle is a word that originates from the French gargouille, which in English means "throat" and, in Latin, means gullet or drain.
However, there is nothing scary about Rockwell’s grinning, playful monsters which have delighted children, including his own, for generations.
The Markward Plaza’s Monster Capital Fountain is just one of many of Rockwell’s sculptures containing playful takes on medieval gargoyles and is one of three of his works in Philadelphia, including the Ned Wolf Memorial at Saylor Grove in Germantown and “Climbing Stone” at Haverford College.
In addition to his sculpture, Rockwell is the author of several rare books on stone carving, including The Art of Stoneworking, The Unfinished: Stone Carvers at Work on the Indian Subcontinent, and The Complete Marble Sleuth.
Following the death of his wife, Rockwell returned to the US, settled outside of Boston and remained a strong supporter of his father’s legacy at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA. The largest assemblages of Peter's sculpture are in the permanent collection of the Museum.