On December 15, 1928, Noel Rockmore was born into a world of art. Born from two prolific artists, Gladys Rockmore Davis and Floyd Davis, Noel was a child drawn to musical performance. An early case of polio crippled him, so the young boy learned to paint. From that point on he painted. He attended the Putney School in Vermont and the Art Students League in New York in 1947, showing exceeding skill at a fast rate. By 19, he sold a painting to well known art collector, Joseph Hirshhorn.
Rockmore traveled South to New Orleans in 1959 and continued to paint a range of portraits on the streets of the French Quarter. This connected him to Larry Borenstein, an art dealer who provided him an opportunity in his gallery on St. Peter Street in the Quarter. Borenstein commissioned Rockmore to paint traditional jazz musicians in his gallery in both formal and informal sittings. Five of these Preservation Portraits are in the Ogden Museum collection. Due to Wilbert Tillman’s position of play and the loose rendering in Rockmore’s piece, Wilbert Tillman, Preservation Hall, Tillman could have been painted during a live performance.
The remaining musicians of Rockmore’s Preservation Portraits at the Museum include Bill Matthews, Kid Sheik, Captain Handy and Billie and Dede Pierce. It is said that Rockmore captured not only their image, but also their personality and how they played. Some of these portraits became integral to the walls of Preservation Hall themselves, while others were published later in a book titled “Preservation Hall Portraits in 1968.”
“Night after night, for months, Rockmore took up a vantage point in the hall and painted furiously…Quickly in the dim light using masonite and polymer, he captured what he heard, what he felt and what he saw.”
– Allan and Sandra Jaffe, Partners of Larry Borenstein
In a time when traditional jazz was no longer en vogue, during the late 50s to early 60s, Rockmore solemnly preserved the values of its rich history in the cracks and shadows of his musician’s portraits. Many of his portraits have a haunting quality to them, for example, the one portrait in the Ogden Museum collection not from Preservation Hall, From Life – Old Man and Riva Model – Magnification Study. The painting is disturbed and unsettling, while the colors are muted, her movements stilted and her eyes enlarged and deformed. Like many artists before and after him, Rockmore was a tortured soul, but his talent and need for painting have rendered him unforgettable once you lay eyes on his work.
Museums such as the Hirshhorn Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) and our very own Ogden Museum of Southern Art are graced with his brilliant works we know to be in existence. It is alleged that there are paintings we are still unaware of, which are located in homes and bars throughout New Orleans. His daughter, an affluent artist, had a recent opening in the New Orleans Jazz Museum last December 2019, titled, New Orleans Music Observed: The Art of Noel Rockmore and Emilie Rhys.
“I always say that he is America’s Picasso…And America has to come to terms with that.”
-Emilie Rhys, Daughter of Noel Rockmore