Born February 3, 1894
Died November 8, 1978
Norman Rockwell was one of America's leading artists. He considered himself first and foremost an illustrator. Rockwell painted a great number of pictures for story illustrations, advertising campaigns, posters, calendars, and books. His long career spanned the days of horses and buggies to the days of space travel. The cover of the highly respected The Saturday Evening Post was his showcase for nearly fifty years.
Rockwell was taught that an illustration is an author's words in paint. He chose to tell the story of the American dream. The story he told, in great detail, was of a simpler time. He painted with warmth and humor and tapped into the nostalgia of the American people when life was uncertain. His paintings were often idyllic and expressed enthusiasm for the ordinary.
Norman Percevel Rockwell was born on February 3, 1894, at his family home just a few blocks west of Central Park in New York City. He was the second son born to J. Waring and Nancy Hill Rockwell. His elder brother, Jarvis, was the athlete in the family. Young Norman found he could compensate for his own lack of athleticism by drawing for his friends. Norman picked up the basics of sketching from his father, and it was the one skill for which he was recognized. It was common for the two of them to spend an evening copying simple scenes from one of the weekly magazines that came to the house. Waring Rockwell had no artistic ambitions of his own and was content to serve out his career as a branch office manager for a cotton textile mill. Norman's Grandfather Hill was an impoverished artist who had immigrated to America from England. He was a painter of portraits and landscapes by preference, occasionally a house painter by necessity. Hill never achieved professional success, but Norman was fascinated by some of his grandfather's paintings, particularly their close attention to detail.
The Rockwell family moved to suburban Mamaroneck, New York, in 1903, where Norman's father continued the custom of reading aloud to the family as they gathered around the dining room table before bedtime. Charles Dickens (1812–1870) was a favorite author and Norman would sketch the characters he visualized while his father's mellow baritone described them. Norman ceased to merely copy others' work and began using his imagination to create new pictures of his own.
During his freshman year at Mamaroneck High, Norman decided to take his drawing seriously and become an illustrator. He used the few dollars he earned at odd chores to pay for lessons at an accredited art school. Every Wednesday and Saturday he would take the two-hour subway ride to New York City to attend classes at the Chase School of Fine and Applied Art.
At fifteen, in the middle of his sophomore year, Norman left high school to study full time at the National Academy of Design and then at the Art Students League, both in New York City, under George Bridgman and Thomas Fogarty. He was a diligent student whose hard work and sense of humor were widely recognized.
In 1912 Norman Rockwell had his first book illustrating job, for C. H. Claudy's Tell Me Why: Stories about Mother Nature. By 1913, at the age of nineteen, he was art editor for Boys' Life, the official magazine for the Boy Scouts of America. Known as the "Boy Illustrator," Rockwell worked for several years illustrating for a wide variety of young people's magazines.
In 1916 Rockwell crossed over to an adult audience when he received a commission to paint a cover for The Saturday Evening Post. It was to be the first of more than three hundred paintings he would illustrate for the highly acclaimed magazine. With his windfall earnings boosting his confidence, Norman proposed marriage to girlfriend Irene O'Connor. They were married that fall and settled into their new home in New Rochelle, New York.
Rockwell continued to use children as his principal subject matter, but he looked at them in a different way. He now attempted to amuse adults with the antics of kids and evoke nostalgia for the pleasures of childhood. He painted them from the adult viewpoint, which sees childhood as a carefree and uncomplicated time.
The world at war
Six months after Rockwell's marriage, in April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21) signed a proclamation that a state of war existed between the United States and the imperial government of Germany. Fired with idealism, Rockwell enlisted in the navy with dreams of becoming a hero for his country. Severely underweight, the new recruit was assigned to the Charleston Navy Yard and put to work as an artist on the camp newspaper, Afloat and Ashore. Left with a great deal of time on his hands, Rockwell continued his career as a magazine illustrator and turned out many paintings for the Post and other magazines, often making more money than an admiral.
The war ended in November 1918, and Rockwell received an early, special discharge after painting a portrait of his commanding officer. Work poured in for the young artist, making him both rich and famous. The 1920s was the Jazz Age and a boom period in American living. Rockwell had the opportunity to travel to Europe and South America, and the Rockwells were popular guests in society circles. In 1926 Rockwell painted the first Post cover ever produced in full color. By 1929 the economy had crashed and so had the Rockwell marriage.
While Norman Rockwell painted people, Thornton Oakley (1881–1953) was known for his paintings of industrial America. Oakley graduated with a degree in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and then studied art under renowned artist Howard Pyle (1853–1911), founder of the Brandywine School, in Wilmington, Delaware.
Thornton Oakley married Amy Ewing in 1910, and together they published numerous travel books, which she wrote and he illustrated. During World War II (1939–45), the National Geographic Society commissioned forty-eight paintings of war plants and related topics from Oakley. To fulfill his assignment, the artist traveled from coast to coast and visited steel mills, grain elevators, shipyards, chemical plants, assembly lines, oil refineries, and more. His paintings, as well as his written reflections, appeared in the December 1942 issue of The National Geographic Magazine titled "American Industries Geared for War." Oakley used his canvases to vividly portray the highlights of America's vast war production effort.
Oakley's next assignment with National Geographic was to do a series on transportation titled "America Transportation Vital to Victory." He was to capture the spirit of America's might in moving men, materials, and supplies. Once again he was on the road for months to cover everything from railroads to cargo planes, from highways to tankers. His impressive paintings appeared in the December 1943 issue of The National Geographic Magazine and were accompanied once again by his patriotic and descriptive writings.
A new beginning
In 1930 Rockwell married Mary Rhodes Barstow. Their first son was born in 1932, and two others followed by 1936. Rockwell became the illustrator for one of his favorite authors, Mark Twain (1835–1910). He was asked to illustrate both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Recording the trivial events in the lives of two ordinary American boys was a perfect fit for Rockwell.
In 1939 Rockwell moved his family to a farm in Arlington, Vermont. It was an ideal place for Norman and Mary to raise their three boys. Their new neighbors were wonderful models for Rockwell, and he continued his practice of painting every day except Christmas, when he would work only a half-day.
The early 1940s were years of change, even for a quiet community like Arlington. An increasing number of young men from the town were joining the armed forces. Then World War II began in earnest. Rockwell was interested in telling the story of the boys next door who had become the boys in uniform. His idea was to follow the path of a typical rookie in the war effort. The character was called Willie Gillis, and he appeared on magazine covers frequently in a series of whimsical scenes. The series ended abruptly when the young model Rockwell had "drafted" from the local Grange Hall enlisted as a naval aviator and left for an overseas assignment.
The "Four Freedoms"
Rockwell looked for a way to make a personal contribution to the war effort. He painted a variety of covers, including the famous "Rosie the Riveter" for the Post. Rockwell did not like to glorify killing, so the only battle picture he ever painted was for the army's ordnance department. It was a dramatic poster that showed a machine gunner, his uniform in shreds, in what appeared to be a tough spot on the firing line. The coil of cartridge tape and the empty cartridges showed that he was about down to his last shot. The caption read, "Let's give him enough and on time." Through his paintings, Rockwell was looking for a way to explain to the home front what America was fighting for to evoke a response of patriotism. These paintings were not done to amuse or entertain; their purpose was to inspire.
On January 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45; see entry) delivered his annual State of the Union address to the Seventy-seventh Congress of the United States. One particular passage, as found in The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1940 Volume, and which became popularly known as the "Four Freedoms," sparked inspiration in Rockwell:
In the future days which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.
Rockwell was so inspired by the speech that he offered to create a series of paintings on the "Four Freedoms" free of charge. The government rejected his offer, but The Saturday Evening Post commissioned the paintings for its magazine. They were to be full-page illustrations inside the magazine, accompanied by an article on each of the four freedoms. Rockwell would interpret each of the four using his own Vermont neighbors exercising those freedoms in their homes, churches, and town meetings. His genius of simplification reduced each freedom to an easily understood metaphor (an image that represents the meaning) while the world was reeling from the threat of their loss.
After ten painstaking months the four canvases were delivered. The response was overwhelming. Requests came in for millions of reprints. The U.S. government soon adopted them for use during World War II. War bond shows were held in sixteen cities, where the paintings drew crowds of more than a million people who bought over $133,000,000 in bonds. The paintings' popularity was considered an important part of the home front war effort.
In the spring of 1943 Rockwell's studio burned to the ground, and he lost his life's work. Fortunately, he had shipped "Freedom of Worship" to Philadelphia several days earlier or it, too, would have been lost. Mary and Norman now had a tough decision to make. They decided it was a good time to move, and they found a place they liked several miles away in West Arlington. Rockwell immediately began work on a new studio. This one had fire extinguishers and a sprinkler system.
When the war ended, Rockwell went back to painting his neighbors as well as presidential candidates and movie stars. The Rockwell children were all in college, so in 1953 Mary and Norman made another move, this time to Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The 1950s saw a series of presidential candidates being committed to canvas, but the decade ended tragically in 1959 with the death of Norman's beloved wife, Mary.
In 1960 Rockwell turned once again to a serious subject. Concerned about the growing nuclear arms race between the two world superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union, known as the Cold War (1945–91), he searched for a way to contribute and decided he would paint "The Golden Rule—Do unto Others as You Would Have Them Do unto You." Rockwell remembered a ten-foot-long, unfinished charcoal drawing of his United Nations picture and turned to it for inspiration. For the next five months he worked to tell the story with greater impact. The finished work graced the April 1, 1961, cover of The Saturday Evening Post and was received with international acclaim. The painting shows a crowded group of people of various nationalities and ages, from the very old to the very young, all of whose facial expressions are focused and expectant as if toward a common goal for the betterment of mankind. Realizing the international relations value of Rockwell's painting, the U.S. State Department produced a thirty-minute film on Rockwell and the painting. It was translated into seventy languages for showing abroad.
At the end of May 1961, the former high school dropout was invited to the University of Massachusetts to receive an honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts.
Rockwell met and married Mary L. (Molly) Punderson in 1961, and the two traveled extensively around the globe. Prompted by Molly, new markets, and the changing times, Rockwell used his art to cover a wide range of social issues in the 1970s. In addition to civil rights and poverty, he addressed the Peace Corps and the Space Age.
Norman Rockwell died on November 8, 1978, at the age of eighty-four. In his 1978 book A Rockwell Portrait: An Intimate Biography, author Donald Walton asked Rockwell about the secret to his longevity. Walton stated that Rockwell mused, "Well, maybe the secret to so many artists living so long is that every painting is a new adventure. So, you see, they're always looking ahead to something new and exciting. The secret is not to look back."
For More Information
Buechner, Thomas S. Norman Rockwell: Artist and Illustrator. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1970.
Claridge, Laura. Norman Rockwell: A Life. New York: Random House, 2001.
Guptill, Arthur L. Norman Rockwell—Illustrator. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1946.
Rockwell, Norman. The Norman Rockwell Album. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961.
Roosevelt, Franklin D. The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1940 Volume. New York: Macmillan, 1941.
Walton, Donald. A Rockwell Portrait: An Intimate Biography. Kansas City, KS: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1978.
Oakley, Thornton. "American Industries Geared for War." The National Geographic Magazine (December 1942): pp. 716–34.
Oakley, Thornton. "American Transportation Vital to Victory." The National Geographic Magazine (December 1943): pp. 671–88.
"American Masters—Norman Rockwell." Public Broadcasting System. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/database/rockwell_n.html (accessed on July 25, 2004).
"The Art of Norman Rockwell." The Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge. http://www.nrm.org/exhibits/current/four-freedoms.html (accessed on July 25, 2004).
"Thornton Oakley Diaries." The University of Delaware Library. http://www.lib.udel.edu/ud/spec/findaids/oakley.htm (accessed on July 25, 2004).
Norman Rockwell's heartwarming illustrations of American life appeared on covers of the Saturday Evening Post magazine for many years. When people use the expression "as American as apple pie," they could just as well say "as American as a Norman Rockwell painting."
Norman Perceval Rockwell was born on February 3, 1894, in New York City, the first of Jarvis Waring Rockwell and Nancy Hill's two sons. 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 sang in the church choir. Until he was about ten years old the family spent its summers at farms in the country. Rockwell recalled in his autobiography (the story of his own life) My Adventures as an Illustrator, "I have no bad memories of my summers in the country." 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.
Started at bottom in art school
Rockwell enrolled first in the National Academy School and then attended the Art Students League. Because he was so serious when working on his art, he was nicknamed "The Deacon" by the other students. In his first class with a live model (a person modeling without clothing), the model was lying on her side and because all Rockwell could see were her feet and buttocks—that was all 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 was strongly influenced by his teachers George Bridgeman, who helped him excel in his drawing skills, and Thomas Fogarty, who passed on his enthusiasm for illustration to Rockwell. While Rockwell was still at the school, Fogarty sent him 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 assignments. Eventually Rockwell was made art director of the magazine. He worked regularly on other children's magazines as well. "The kind of work I did seemed to be what the magazines wanted," he remarked in his autobiography.
Paintings made the Post
In March 1916 Rockwell traveled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to see George Horace Lorimer, editor of the Saturday Evening Post. It was Rockwell's dream to do a Post cover. Since he did not have an appointment, he showed his work to the art editor, who then showed it to Lorimer. The editor accepted Rockwell's two finished paintings for covers as well as three sketches for future covers. Rockwell's success with the Post made him more attractive to other magazines, and he began selling 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 (1914–18; a war fought between German-led Central Powers and the Allies: England, the United States, Italy, and other nations), Rockwell joined the navy and was assigned to the camp newspaper. Meanwhile, he continued painting for the Post and other publications. After the war Rockwell started doing advertising illustration, working for Jell-O, Willys cars, and Orange Crush soft drinks, among others. In 1920 he was hired to paint a picture for the Boy Scout calendar. (He would continue to provide a picture for the popular calendar for over fifty years.) During the 1920s Rockwell's income soared. In 1929 he was divorced from his wife Irene, and in 1930 he married Mary Barstow, with whom he had three sons. In 1939 the family moved to a sixty-acre farm in Arlington, Vermont. In 1941 the Milwaukee Art Institute gave Rockwell his first one-man show in a major museum.
Wide variety of work
After President Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945) made a speech to Congress in 1941 describing the "four essential human freedoms," Rockwell created paintings of the four freedoms: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. He completed the paintings in six months in 1942, and they were published in the Post in 1943. The pictures became greatly popular, and many other publications asked the Post for permission to reprint them. The federal government also 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."
In 1943 Rockwell's studio burned to the ground. He lost some original paintings and drawings as well as his large collection of costumes. He and his family then settled in nearby West Arlington, Vermont. Rockwell worked on special stamps for the Postal Service as well as posters for the Treasury Department, the military, and Hollywood movies. He also did illustrations for Sears mail-order catalogs, Hallmark greeting cards, and books such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In 1953 Rockwell and his family moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts. In the summer of 1959, his wife Mary suffered a heart attack and died. In 1961 he married Molly Punderson, a retired schoolteacher.
Also in 1961 Rockwell received an honorary (obtained without meeting the usual requirements) Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts as well as the Interfaith Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews for his Post cover painting of the Golden Rule. Rockwell's last Post cover (he did three hundred seventeen in all) appeared in December 1963. The magazine's circulation was shrinking at that time, and new management decided to switch to a new format. Rockwell continued painting news pictures for Look and contributing to McCall's.
In 1969 Rockwell had a one-man show in New York City. Critics were usually unkind toward Rockwell's work or ignored it completely, 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." In 1975, at the age of eighty-one, Rockwell completed his fifty-sixth Boy Scout calendar. In 1976 the city of Stockbridge celebrated a Norman Rockwell Day. On November 8, 1978, Rockwell died in his home.
In 1993 a new Rockwell museum was opened near Stockbridge. Museum director Laurie Norton Moffatt listed all of Rockwell's works in a two-volume book; according to Landrum Bolling of the Saturday Evening Post, the total exceeded four thousand original works. In November 1999 an exhibit of Rockwell's work entitled "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People" opened at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia.
For More Information
Buechner, Thomas S. Norman Rockwell, Artist and Illustrator. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1970.
Claridge, Laura P. Norman Rockwell: A Life. New York: Random House, 2001.
Moline, Mary. Norman Rockwell Encyclopedia: A Chronological Catalog of the Artist's Work 1910–1978. Indianapolis: Curtis, 1979.
Rockwell, Norman. Norman Rockwell, My Adventures as an Illustrator: An Autobiography. Indianapolis: Curtis, 1979. Reprint, New York: Abrams, 1988.
Walton, Donald. A Rockwell Portrait. Kansas City, KS: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, Inc., 1978.
Norman Rockwell, 1894–1978, American illustrator, b. New York City. One of America's favorite artists, Rockwell specialized in warm and humorous scenes of small-town American life, and from the late 1930s he used ordinary people as his models. Best known for his magazine covers, especially those for the Saturday Evening Post (323 in all from 1916 to 1963), he developed a style of finely drawn realism with a wealth of anecdotal detail. During World War II, his posters on the Four Freedoms were widely circulated. In the 1960s his illustrations tended to have more liberal themes, as in The Problem We Live With (Look magazine, 1964), which shows an African-American schoolgirl being escorted by officers past a wall scrawled with an ugly racial epithet. Scorned during his life by some art critics as a mere illustrator, he has been posthumously recognized as a significant American artist. Rockwell lived the last 25 years of his life in Stockbridge, Mass., where a museum devoted to his work opened in 1993.
See his autobiography (1960); biographical works by T. S. Buechner (1970), L. Claridge (2001), and D. Solomon (2013); study by R. Halpern (2006).