Norman Rockwell (American 1894-1978)
“Im not a historian. I just painted the things I saw around me. I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed.”
Norman Rockwell truly reflected the currents of American life and times, from his earliest drawings to the patriotic themes of World War II to more politically oriented themes in his later years. His genius was in being able to capture the essence of what is now considered largely “an America vanished,” before the world identified with Norman Rockwell magazine covers.
These cover illustrations captured the emotions of the times, not only that which was, but also what people would have liked life to be. One look at an original painting will make apparent the quality of his technique, style, and artistic skills.
Born in New York City, Rockwell spent his childhood and adolescence there, with significant summer excursions into the countryside. He felt a strong sense of connectedness not only with nature, but also with the people who had chosen to live “on natures terms.”
Rockwells early inspiration to draw and paint came from his father, an avid Sunday painter. It also came indirectly from his grandfathers primitive canvases of bucolic barnyard scenes. He studied painting at the newly formed Arts Students League where he was taught anatomical accuracy by George Bridgman and learned composition from Thomas Fogarty. The most popular and fashionable illustrators of the time; N.C. Wyeth, J.C. Leyendecker, Maxfield Parrish, and Howard Pyle, were also powerful influences on Norman Rockwells development.
Among the paintings by other artists hanging in his studio were several Pyles, a Leyendecker and a Parrish. The Parrish painting is a self-portrait of the artist sitting at his easel in a side view. It is thought that the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridges logo taken from his famous painting entitled The Triple Self-Portrait was directly inspired by Parrishs self-portrait. Rockwell frequently took good ideas from other artists whom he admired. Another such example, is his Shave and a Haircut(1940) taken directly from the earlier James Montgomery Flaggs A Man of Affairs(1913).
In Rockwells early years, he studied every magazine with Howard Pyles illustrations. His admiration for J. C. Leyendecker was even more obsessive for in 1915, after completing his studies, Rockwell moved to New Rochelle to be near Leyendecker. He even rented a studio in the same building and they later shared models, including the indomitable, Pops Fredericks.
At age twenty-two, Rockwell sold his first cover piece to The Saturday Evening Post, a prized commission for an illustrator. It was the beginning of a three hundred and twenty-one cover relationship between Rockwell and the Post, one cover fewer than Leyendecker. As late as 1919, four color printing was still very expensive, and most popular storytelling magazine covers were produced in limited color. In a sense, Rockwell was the last of the 19th-century genre painters, but one who came into his creative powers at a time when a new audience and a new market was opening up.
Mass-circulated national magazines with great popularity catapulted certain artists into millions of households weekly and Rockwell clearly had the right talent at the right time. In the 1920s and 1930s, Rockwells work developed more breadth and greater character. His use of humor, which had already been developed in the character of Cousin Reginald (a young boy who was always prim and proper), became an important part of his work. It was a technique he used effectively to draw the viewer into the composition to share the magic of the moment between viewer and artist.
Rockwell was constantly seeking new ideas and new faces in his daily life. He wrote that everything he had ever seen or done had gone into his pictures. He painted not only the scenes and people close to him but, in a quest for authenticity, would approach total strangers and ask them to sit for him. His internal art of storytelling became integrated with his external skills as an artist. What emerged was what we know today as an incredible facility in judging the perfect moment; when to stop the action, snap the picture...when all the elements that define and embellish a total story are in place.
In 1936, Editor George Horace Lorimer retired from The Saturday Evening Post, and the second of two successive editors, Ben Hibbs, altered the circular format of the cover. In fact, Hibbs permitted Norman Rockwell to create with more freedom within a different cover layout. The new mood of both the magazine and the country was reflected in Rockwells work, as he used the entire cover, unconfined by borders and logos, to express himself.
In the 1940s, Rockwell moved to Arlington, Vermont, where he started to paint the full-canvas paintings that are increasingly treasured by collectors today. With Grandma Moses as a friend and neighbor and local townspeople as his models, Rockwell became a living part of Americana - a national treasure. His painting, ‘The Bridge Game’ is from this period and it captures the players from a rather unique overhead perspective, four Arlington townspeople at a popular local recreational activity - playing cards. During his Vermont years he flourished, but always within the framework of being an illustrator.
Norman Rockwell was acutely aware of his goals as an artist and his lack of critical acceptance. During World War II, Rockwell joined the legion of artists and writers involved in the war effort to help boost the sale of savings bonds. He tried to explain through his art, what the war was all about. The result of his efforts was The Four Freedoms, at first rejected by the government and then printed as posters by the millions to sell war bonds. The Disabled War Veteran travelled with The Four Freedoms, to raise money and they garnered $32 million dollars for the effort.
In the 1960s, from his home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Rockwell struck out in a new direction. Though by then his reputation was rooted in the evocation of nostalgia, he boldly tackled political issues. The Peace Corps in Ethiopia captured the idealism of the Kennedy years in a realistic setting. He painted portraits of President Kennedy, but also of Eisenhower, Nixon, and Johnson as well as portraits of other world leaders including Nehru of India and Nassar of Egypt.
In 1962, Rockwell was quoted in Esquire magazine as saying: I call myself an illustrator but I am not an illustrator. Instead I paint storytelling pictures which are quite popular but unfashionable.
Unfashionable was a misnomer; his works were in fact very popular, but he was extremely sensitive to the way the art world as well as the public judged him.