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Art History

Happy Birthday Norman Rockwell

Happy (Belated) Birthday to Norman Rockwell, born February 3, 1894!  I wouldn’t be surprised if this artist sounds familiar or you’ve seen his work before.  Rockwell was an American illustrator and painter who was very popular in the mid 1900s.  You can still find his images being used today on calendars, cards, posters, and more as well as being parodied through all types of pop culture.    

Self Portrait by Norman Rockwell. Painting showing back view of Rockwell at easel painting his self portrait while looking into the mirror.
Self Portrait, Norman Rockwell, 1960

Family Life & Early Art

Norman Perceval Rockwell was born in New York City in 1894.  His father was the manager of a textile firm and his mother was a homemaker.  Norman Rockwell was the middle of three sons.  His parents were very religious and the boys spent a lot of time with the St. Luke Choir in the Fields in Greenwich Village.  The family lived on country farms in New England in the summers. 

Rockwell showed an interest in art from a young age so his father would sit and draw with him and his younger brother at the dining table.  At age 14 he began classes at the Chase School of Art (later changed to the New York School of Art).  In 1910 he began studying at the National Academy of Design.  Later he transferred to the Art Students League and studied with Thomas Fogarty and George Bridgman.  

Rockwell got his first artistic job at age 18 as the illustrator for Carl H. Claudy’s book Tell Me Why: Stories about Mother Nature.  While still in his teens he was hired as an art director for the Boy Scouts of America’s publication Boys’ Life, a position he held for three years.  He continued to contribute to their annual calendar until later in life. 

Illustration to Tell Me Why Stories About Mother Nature by C.H. Claudy by Norman Rockwell. Landscape painting with lake, line of trees, and volcano in the background.
Illustration to Tell Me Why Stories About Mother Nature by C.H. Claudy, Norman Rockwell, 1911
Scout at Ships Wheel by Norman Rockwell. Magazine cover of Boys Life with boy holding a steering wheel.
Scout at Ships Wheel, Norman Rockwell, 1913
Boy With Baby Carriage by Norman Rockwell. Painting to three boys, two in baseball gear and the third in a suit pushing a baby carriage.
Boy With Baby Carriage, Norman Rockwell, 1916

When he was 21, he and his family moved to New Rochelle, New York.  Rockwell set up a studio with the cartoonist Clyde Forsythe there.  Forsythe worked for The Saturday Evening Post and helped Rockwell submit his first successful cover there in 1916.  Rockwell also produced work for magazines such as LifeLiterary Digest, and Country Gentleman.

Rockwell was married three times in his life.  First in 1916 to Irene O’Connor.  They later divorced in 1930.  In 1930 he married Mary Barstow and they had three sons together.  In 1939 they moved from New York to Arlington, Vermont.  In 1953 Rockwell and his family moved from Vermont to Stockbridge, Massachusetts where he would remain for the rest of his life.  In 1959 his wife Mary died unexpectedly.  In 1961 he married his third wife, Molly Punderson. 

Norman Rockwell the Artist

At the age of 22 in 1916, Rockwell painted his first cover for The Saturday Evening Post.  It’s from his work at this publication that he would become a household name.  Over the next 47 years he provided original cover art for 323 issues of the Post. His covers embodied what was seen as the American Dream and featured images families, mischievous children, and small-town life. 

During World War I (sometime between 1914-1918), Rockwell enlisted in the U.S. Navy.  He was initially rejected for being underweight, however tried again later and served as a military artist.

Cobbler Studying Doll Shoe by Norman Rockwell. Painting of older man sitting holding a tiny shoe while girl in pink dress looks on.
Cobbler Studying Doll Shoe, Norman Rockwell, 1921

Between 1920 and 1930, Rockwell traveled to Europe multiple times, South America, and Africa.  He experimented with different contemporary styles that he was inspired by, however he was urged by the director of the Post not to change what he was doing.

In 1936, Norman Rockwell was commissioned to illustrate Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and later The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  A few years ago I was very surprise to stumble upon 16 of the original illustrations from both books at the Mark Twain Museum in Hannibal, Missouri. 

Photo of gallery wall with original illustrations from Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Norman Rockwell
Original Norman Rockwell illustrations at the Mark Twain Museum in Hannibal, Missouri (taken by Laura Jaen Smith, 2018)

During the Second World War, Rockwell painted a series of covers published between 1941 and 1946 that featured Willis Gillis a fictional character who became a recruit in the war.  The paintings depicted an idealized version of the American boy’s life from the first day in uniform to returning home after the war. 

Contemporary Themes

Norman Rockwell was inspired by President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address which has become known as the Four Freedom Speech.  In it, President Roosevelt proposed that everyone in the world should enjoy four basic universal rights – Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.  The speech was meant to help end U.S. isolationist policies from after World War I as World War I had just broke out across the globe.

In response, Rockwell painted the Four Freedoms paintings in 1943, each of the four paintings depicted one of Roosevelt’s Freedoms.  The paintings were included in four consecutive issues of The Saturday Evening Post with essays by contemporary writers.  Rockwell’s paintings were very popular.  The works toured the United States in an exhibition sponsored by the Post and the U.S. Treasury Department.  The tour raised more than $130 million for the war effort through the sale of war bonds.

Freedom From Want by Norman Rockwell. Painting of a family sitting at the table with a older woman setting down a big turkey.
Freedom From Want, Norman Rockwell, 1943
Freedom From Fear by Norman Rockwell. Painting of a woman and man tucking two children into bed.
Freedom From Fear, Norman Rockwell, 1943
Freedom of Speech by Norman Rockwell. Painting of man standing up in a crowd of people.
Freedom of Speech, Norman Rockwell, 1943
Freedom to Worship by Norman Rockwell. Painting of people close up praying. "Each according to the dictates of his own conscience"
Freedom to Worship, Norman Rockwell, 1943

In 1963, Rockwell ended his career with The Saturday Evening Post and began working for Look magazine.  While working with Look for 10 years, Rockwell explored contemporary themes such as civil rights, America’s war on poverty, and space exploration.

One of Rockwell’s most important pieces of his career was “The Problem We All Live With” which appeared on the January 14, 1964 cover of Look.  The painting depicted six year old Ruby Bridges being walked to school by U.S. Marshals during the integration of public schools in 1960.  Rockwell received a lot of hate mail over the piece.  The painting was the first piece acquired by the Norman Rockwell Museum in 1975.  It also was selected to be hung in the White House during Barack Obama’s first presidential term.

The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell. Painting showing Ruby Bridges walking with four guards to school
The Problem We All Live With, Norman Rockwell, 1964
The Final Impossibility Man's Tracks on the Moon by Norman Rockwell. Painting of two astronauts on the moon.
The Final Impossibility Man's Tracks on the Moon, Norman Rockwell, 1969

Style & Themes

Norman Rockwell was considered part of the Regionalism Art Movement.  The American Regionalism Art Movement started around 1930 and depicted rural and small-town America in a realistic way.  His genre paintings (art that depicts everyday people doing everyday life tasks) specifically centered around the idealized nuclear family and their mischievous children.  Later in life he began to explore other themes that depicted some of the harsher realities of life.

Rockwell’s work was realistic and highly detailed.  He used muted colors and earth tones.  Because most of his work was created for magazines, he used flat backgrounds that made the figures easily identifiable.  While realistic, some of the characters were painted with slightly exaggerated features to add an element of humor. 

Rockwell used photographs in order to create his paintings.  He would hire photographers to take photographs of friends, family members, and neighbors who modeled for him.  Rockwell carefully choreographed each scene.  He would then use a projector to trace and sketch the images onto his canvas.  Rockwell was very thorough and methodical – by the time he started painting on canvas he had already completed several sketches, tonal drawings, and studies of the scene. 

Boy and Girl Gazing at the Moon by Norman Rockwell. Painting of girl and boy sitting on a bench with their backs the the viewer, puppy looking towards viewer.
Boy and Girl Gazing at the Moon, Norman Rockwell, 1926
Tom Sawyer Whitewashing the Fence by Norman Rockwell. Painting of two boys, one with brush in hand painting fence white.
Tom Sawyer Whitewashing the Fence, Norman Rockwell, 1936

Death & Legacy

Norman Rockwell died on November 8, 1978 of emphysema at the age of 84 in his Stockbridge, Massachusetts home.  During his lifetime he completed over 4000 original pieces of art and illustrated over 40 books.

Prior to his death, he set up a trust giving custodianship of his works and his studio to the Old Corner House Stockbridge Historical Society, later the Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge.  The museum’s collection includes more than 700 original paintings, drawings, and studies, as well as a national research institute dedicated to American illustration art.

A year before his death in 1977, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Gerald Ford.  While presenting the award, President Ford remarked that Rockwell was an, “artist, illustrator, and author [whose] vivid and affectionate portraits of our country and ourselves have become a beloved part of the American tradition.”

In 2008, Rockwell was named the official state artist of Massachusetts (where he lived for the last 25 years of his life). 

Resources & Further Learning

If you enjoyed learning more about this artist, I encourage you to check out more of his paintings and research more in-depth articles about his life and work.

  • https://www.nrm.org/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Rockwell
  • https://www.wikiart.org/en/norman-rockwell
  • https://www.artnet.com/artists/norman-rockwell/
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Norman-Rockwell
  • https://www.illustrationhistory.org/artists/norman-rockwell
  • https://www.biography.com/artist/norman-rockwell
  • https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/norman-rockwell-about-norman-rockwell/689/#
  • https://www.npr.org/sections/pictureshow/2009/11/rockwell.html
  • https://www.christies.com/features/15-things-to-know-about-Norman-Rockwell-8714-1.aspx
  • https://www.theartstory.org/artist/rockwell-norman/
  • https://www.nrm.org/2021/10/the-artists-process-norman-rockwells-color-studies/
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JlufEZCh1Mk
  • https://www.openculture.com/2021/02/how-norman-rockwell-used-photographs-to-create-his-famous-paintings.html
  • https://artsandculture.google.com/story/discover-norman-rockwell-s-reference-photos-for-his-most-famous-paintings/iALCpe8lCP9QJg
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regionalism_(art)

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About the Artist

Photo of Laura Jaen Smith

Laura Jaen Smith is an artist who lives and works out of Horseheads, New York. Her inspiration comes from observing the beauty she sees around her.  After a decade living out west, she returned back to New York State and started seeing the same old places with new eyes.  She is most interested in capturing small moments in nature that might otherwise be overlooked.

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