Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) is remembered for his heartwarming illustrations of American life that appeared on covers of the Saturday Evening Post magazine for many decades. Marked by nostalgia and moral fortitude, the paintings remain popular with collectors.
When people use the expression "as American as apple pie" they could just as well say as American as a Norman Rockwell painting. Rockwell produced cover paintings for the Saturday Evening Post, a major magazine of its day, for several decades. In the process he became nationally renowned. His nostalgic vision and eye for detail brought him enormous popularity. "He created a moral myth in which people were reassured of their own essential goodness," art critic Arthur C. Danto told Allison Adato of Life magazine. "And that is a very powerful thing." Film director Steven Spielberg remarked to Adato, "Growing up, we always subscribed to the Post. He [Rockwell] saw an America of such pride and self-worth. My vision is very similar to his, for the most part because of him."
Rockwell was born on February 3, 1894, in New York City. His father worked for a textile firm, starting as office boy and eventually moving up to manager of the New York office. His parents were very religious and the young Rockwell was a choir boy. Until he was about 10 years old the family spent its summers in the country, staying at farms that took in boarders. Rockwell recalled in his autobiography My Adventures as an Illustrator, "I have no bad memories of my summers in the country," and noted that his recollections "all together form[ed] an image of sheer blissfulness." He believed that these summers "had a lot to do with what I painted later on."
Rockwell enjoyed drawing at an early age and soon decided he wanted to be an artist. During his freshman year in high school, he also attended the Chase School on Saturdays to study art. Later that year he attended Chase twice a week. Halfway through his sophomore year, he quit high school and went full time to art school.
Rockwell enrolled first in the National Academy School and then attended the Art Students League. Because he was so dedicated and solemn when working at his art, he related in his autobiography, he was nicknamed "The Deacon" by the other students. In his first class with a live model, the location of his easel was not the best. The nude young woman was lying on her side and all Rockwell could see was her feet and rear end. So that is what he drew. Rockwell noted that, as Donald Walton wrote in his book A Rockwell Portrait, "he started his career in figure drawing from the bottom up."
At the Art Students League, Rockwell had two teachers who had a significant influence on him: George Bridgeman, a teacher of draftsmanship, and Thomas Fogarty, a teacher of illustration. Besides their expert instruction, Walton wrote, they conveyed their "enthusiasm about illustration."
While still at the school, Fogarty sent Rockwell to a publisher, where he got a job illustrating a children's book. He next received an assignment from Boys' Life magazine. The editor liked his work and continued to give him illustration assignments. Eventually Rockwell was made art director of the magazine. He regularly illustrated various other children's magazines after that. "I really didn't have much trouble getting started," he remarked in his autobiography. "The kind of work I did seemed to be what the magazines wanted."
In March of 1916, Rockwell traveled to Philadelphia to attempt to see George Horace Lorimer, editor of the Saturday Evening Post, to show him some proposed cover paintings and sketches. It was his dream to do a Post cover. So he set out to sell Lorimer on his work. Since he did not have an appointment, the art editor came out and looked at his work, then showed it to Lorimer. The editor accepted Rockwell's two finished paintings for covers and also liked his three sketches for future covers. Rockwell had sold everything; his dream was not just realized but exceeded. This was the start of a long-term relationship with the Post.
His success with the Post made Rockwell more attractive to other major magazines and he began to sell paintings and drawings to Life, Judge, and Leslie's. Also in 1916 he married Irene O'Connor, a schoolteacher.
In 1917, shortly after the United States entered World War I, Rockwell decided to join the navy. He was assigned to the camp newspaper, related Walton, and he was able to continue doing his paintings for the Post and other publications. When the war ended in 1918, Rockwell got an immediate discharge.
After the war, besides magazine works, Rockwell started doing advertising illustration. He did work for Jell-O, Willys cars, and Orange Crush soft drinks, among others. Also in 1920, he was requested to paint a picture for the Boy Scout calendar. He would continue to provide a picture for the popular calendar for over 50 years. During the 1920s, Rockwell became the Post's top cover artist and his income soared. In 1929 he was divorced from his wife Irene.
In 1930, Rockwell married Mary Barstow. They had three sons over the next several years. In 1939, the family moved to a 60-acre farm in Arlington, Vermont. In 1941, the Milwaukee Art Institute gave Rockwell his first one-man show in a major museum.
After President Franklin Roosevelt made his 1941 address to Congress setting out the "four essential human freedoms," Rockwell decided to paint images of those freedoms, reported Maynard Good Stoddard of the Saturday Evening Post. With the U.S. entry into World War II. Rockwell created the four paintings during a six-month period in 1942. His "Four Freedoms" series was published in the Post in 1943. The painting portrayed Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. The pictures became greatly popular and many other publications sent the Post requests to reprint.
Then the federal government took the original paintings on a national tour to sell war bonds. As Ben Hibbs, editor of the Post, noted in Rockwell's autobiography, "They were viewed by 1,222,000 people in 16 leading cities and were instrumental in selling $132,992,539 worth of bonds." Then, in 1943, his studio burned to the ground. Rockwell lost some original paintings, drawings, and his extensive collection of costumes. The family then settled in nearby West Arlington.
Over the years Rockwell did illustrations for an ever-widening array of projects. He did commemorative stamps for the Postal Service. He worked on posters for the Treasury Department, the military, and Hollywood movies. He did mail-order catalogs for Sears and greeting cards for Hallmark, and illustrated books including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
In 1953, Rockwell and family moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts. In the summer of 1959, his wife Mary suffered a heart attack and died. During the 1960s, Rockwell painted portraits of various political figures, including all of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates. Most of these were done for Look magazine. In 1961, he was presented with an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts. That same year he received an award that he especially treasured, wrote Walton. He was given the Interfaith Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews for his Post cover paining of the Golden Rule. Also in 1961, Rockwell married a retired schoolteacher by the name of Molly Punderson.
Rockwell's last Post cover appeared in December of 1963. Over the years he had done 317 covers. The magazine's circulation was shrinking at that time and new management decided to switch to a new format. After Rockwell and the Post parted ways, he began a different assignment, painting news pictures for Look. He also started painting for McCall's.
In 1969 Rockwell had a one-man show in New York City. Art critics often were less than flattering toward Rockwell's work; if they did not knock him, they ignored him. But the public loved his paintings and many were purchased for prices averaging around $20,000. Thomas Buechner wrote in Life, "It is difficult for the art world to take the people's choice very seriously." Rockwell himself said to Walton, "I could never be satisfied with just the approval of the critics, and, boy, I've certainly had to be satisfied without it."
In 1975, at the age of 81, Rockwell was still painting, working on his 56th Boys Scout calendar. In 1976 the city of Stockbridge celebrated a Norman Rockwell Day. On November 8, 1978, Rockwell died in his home in Stockbridge.
Buechner noted that Rockwell's art "has been reproduced more often than all of Michelangelo's Rembrandt's and Picasso's put together." In 1993, a new Rockwell museum was opened just outside of Stockbridge. Museum director Laurie Norton Moffatt cataloged his art in a two-volume book, wrote Landrum Bolling of the Saturday Evening Post, and listed over 4,000 original works. As Walton wrote, throughout his life, Rockwell followed the motto: "Don't worry; just work."
Life, November 13, 1970, p. 16; July 1993, pp. 84-91.
Newsweek, April 12, 1993, pp. 58-59.
Moline, Mary, Norman Rockwell Encyclopedia: A Chronological Catalog of the Artist's Work 1910-1978, Curtis Publishing Company, 1979.
Walton, Donald, A Rockwell Portrait, Sheed Andrews and McMeel, Inc., 1978.
Saturday Evening Post, 1994, pp. 40-43, 74-76; 1995, pp. 60-64. □