Norman Rockwell documented American life not with a camera or a pen but with illustrations that we all wished we could do as well. He created illustrations using models, but his models were from his hometown—they weren’t always pretty but they always had character. In fact, he was a character and should he be called upon to describe himself, he would say as he has said before, “ …monstrous Adam’s apple, narrow shoulders, long neck and pigeon toes." Later in life he was still a string–bean kind of guy in stature—tall, wiry and energetic—sometimes with spectacles, a pipe held firmly in his teeth, and of course, holding brushes, many painterly brushes.
It’s in The Genes
On February 3, 1894 in New York City—just west of Central Park—Norman Percevel Rockwell was born to Nancy and Jarvis Waring Rockwell. His father was in the textile industry, and although he wasn’t particularly inclined, he could do a decent pencil sketch and often spent evenings copying drawings with his son Norman. Another family talent however, was his maternal grandfather, Howard Hill, who worked for Currier and Ives; Hill never received personal success but Norman often noted that his grandfather’s attention to detail in his landscape, animal and portrait paintings was something to aspire too.
Six Plus Decades
Over his adult lifetime—from 1916 until his death in 1978, Norman Rockwell was America’s favorite illustrator. He completed an astounding number of illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post—322—and his magazine covers were well recognized in the 1930s, 40s and 50s culminating in their immense appeal. The New York Times once affectionately characterized his work as akin to Mark Twain’s novels in that they were just as loved.
Rockwell did have his detractors however, led by another artist, Clement Greenberg who critiqued his work as too sentimental, “not serious" and not modern. But, Rockwell himself often said, that for him, getting the idea was generally the hardest part and that he wanted to come up with something that, “makes the reader want to sigh and smile at the same time," and that was not abstract in interpretation.
It’s in the Jeans
Rockwell lived from the horse and buggy era through to space exploration and mostly tried to depict life and work from live models—most of them were family and friends. When he moved to Vermont, he found the serene environment he needed to totally concentrate on his pictures, convinced that the success of any illustration lay in its truthfulness to subject and setting; so, he was quite meticulous in portrait type and props. The magazine industry, at its zenith, was the mid-20th century impetus for the American Dream. Rockwell’s cover illustrations were often familiar, the hearth at Christmas, puberty and a first date, old men playing instruments, the neighborhood barber shop—daily travails and life’s simple pleasures, along with town gossips and historic events—Rockwell was illustrating everyday America.
Patriotism and the American Ideal
Rockwell found his niche when it came to allegiance to a nation, only that would have been to high-concept for him. Instead, his concept of nation was synonymous with family and home.
A huge turning point however, came from his depictions of the Four Freedoms: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom of Want and Freedom from Fear. When these paintings first appeared in the Post, their reception resulted in requests for millions of reprints. The government joined in and millions more were distributed in connection with the Treasury Department’s War Bond drives. They showed up as posters in post offices, schools, railroad stations, and other public or semi-public buildings.
Peter Schjeldahl, a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998 and the magazine’s art critic, says that “Rockwell’s pictures are literal-minded and sentimental, sure, but they constitute as accurate a graph as we have of what being American—a fictive condition, always—could feel like in the twentieth century. Meanwhile, he spread delight among the people. Last I checked, there wasn’t a law against that."
Abigail Rockwell once said about her grandfather, “Some say life will never be as perfect as life in a Norman Rockwell painting. But my grandfather’s work isn’t about an unachievable ideal. Pop’s work is about believing in the goodness of people. It’s about finding that goodness in ourselves and others and in the moments we spend with one another."
Guptill, Arthur L. Norman Rockwell Illustrator. New York: Waton-Guptill Publications, 1975. Book.
Meyer, Susan E. Norman Rockwell’s World War II: Impressions from the Home Front. A Roundtable Press Book, USAA Foundation, 1991. Book.
Rockwell, Abigail (Granddaughter) Saturday Evening Post. What Kind of Father Was Norman Rockwell?
Toner, Patrick. Crisis Magazine. Rockwell and Modernism: The Case of “The Art Critic"