Norman Rockwell (February 3, 1894 – November 8, 1978) was
an early 20th century American painter. His works enjoy a broad
popular appeal in the United States where Rockwell is most famous
for a series of covers for The Saturday Evening Post, notably those
painted during the 1940s and 1950s, especially the Four Freedoms
series and Rosie the Riveter.
Born in New York City, he transferred from high school at the age
of 16 to the Chase Art School. He then went on to the National Academy
of Design, and finally, to the Art Students League, where he was
taught by Thomas Fogarty and George Bridgman. Rockwell's early works
were done for St. Nicholas Magazine, the Boy Scouts of America publication
Boy's Life, and other juvenile publications.
As a student, Rockwell was given smaller, less important jobs,
but his major breakthrough came in 1912 with his first book illustration
for C.H. Claudy's Tell Me Why: Stories about Mother Nature.
During the First World War, he tried to enlist into the U.S. Navy
but was refused entry because, being 6 feet (1.83 m) tall and 140
pounds (64 kg), he was eight pounds underweight. To compensate,
he spent one night gorging himself on bananas, liquids and donuts,
and was enlisted the next day. However, he was given the role of
a military artist, and did not see any action during his tour of
Rockwell moved to New Rochelle, New York at age 21 and shared a
studio with the cartoonist Clyde Forsythe, who worked for The Saturday
Evening Post. With Forsythe's help, he submitted his first successful
cover painting to the Post in 1916, Boy with Baby Carriage published
on May 20. Rockwell married Irene O'Connor, that same year; however,
the couple divorced in 1930. He quickly remarried schoolteacher
Mary Barstow, with whom he had three children – Jarvis, Thomas
and Peter. In 1939, the Rockwell family moved to Arlington, Vermont,
which seemed to inspire him to painting scenes of everyday, small
town American life.
In 1943 during the Second World War, Rockwell completed the Four
Freedoms series which was completed in seven months and resulted
in him losing 15 pounds. The paintings were based on a speech by
Franklin D. Roosevelt, who declared that there were four principles
for universal rights: Freedom from Want, Freedom of Speech, Freedom
to Worship, and Freedom from Fear. The paintings were published
in 1943 by The Saturday Evening Post. The U.S. Treasury Department
later promoted war bonds by touring the originals to 16 cities.
That same year a fire in his studio destroyed numerous original
paintings, costumes, and props. Later, in 1953, his wife Mary died
unexpectedly, which resulted in Rockwell taking time off to grieve.
It was during this break that he and his son Thomas produced his
autobiography, My Adventures as an Illustrator, which was published
in 1960. The Saturday Evening Post printed excerpts from this book
in eight consecutive issues, the first issue containing Rockwell's
famous Triple Self Portrait.
Rockwell married his third wife, retired schoolteacher Molly Punderson,
in 1961. His last painting for the Post was published in 1963, marking
the end of a publishing relationship that included 321 cover paintings.
He spent the next 10 years painting for Look Magazine, where his
work depicted his interests in civil rights, poverty and space exploration.
During his long career, he was commissioned to paint the portraits
for Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, as well as those
of other world figures, including Gamal Abdel Nasser and Jawaharlal
Norman's ability to "get the point across" in one picture,
and his flair for painstaking detail made him a favorite of the
advertising industry. He was also commissioned to illustrate over
40 books including the ever popular Adventures of Tom Sawyer and
Huckleberry Finn. His annual contributions for the Boy Scout calendars
(1925 - 1976), was only slightly overshadowed by his most popular
of calendar works - the "Four Seasons" illustrations for
Brown & Bigelow were published for 17 years beginning in 1947
and reproduced in various styles and sizes since 1964. Illustrations
for booklets, catalogs, posters (particularly movie promotions),
sheet music, stamps, playing cards, and murals (including "Yankee
Doodle Dandy",which was completed in 1936 for the Nassau Inn
in Princeton, New Jersey) rounded out Rockwell's oeuvre as an illustrator.
In his later years, Rockwell began receiving more attention as a
painter when he chose more serious subjects such as the series on
racism for Look.
A custodianship of 574 of his original paintings and drawings was
established with Rockwell's help near his home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts,
and the museum is still open today between May and October every
year. Rockwell received in 1977 the Presidential Medal of Freedom
for "vivid and affectionate portraits of our country",
the United States of America's highest civilian honor.
Norman Rockwell passed away at age 84.
Critique of his work
Rockwell was very prolific, and produced over 2000 original works,
most of which have been either destroyed by fire or are in permanent
collections. Original magazines in mint condition that contain his
work are extremely rare and can command thousands of dollars today.
Photographic portrait of RockwellMany of his works appear to the
modern artistic eye as overly sweet, especially the Saturday Evening
Post covers, and tend toward idealistic portrayals of American life.
Consequently, Rockwell is dismissed as a "serious painter"
by some contemporary artists, who often regard his work as bourgeois
and kitsch. He is called an illustrator instead of an artist by
some critics, a designation he did not mind, as it was what he called
himself. Yet, Rockwell sometimes produced images considered powerful
and moving to anyone's eye. One example is The Problem We All Live
With, which dealt with the issue of school integration. The painting
depicts a young African American girl walking to school, flanked
by white federal marshals, walking past a wall defaced by racist
graffiti. It is probably not an image that could have appeared on
a magazine cover earlier in Rockwell's career, but ranks among his
best-known works today.
Norman Rockwell's ability to relate America's old values to the
events of a rapidly changing world made him a special person, both
hero and friend, to millions of his compatriots.