Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell


Norman Rockwell

One of the most popular American artists of the past century, Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) was a keen observer of human nature and a gifted storyteller. For nearly seven decades, while history was in the making all around him, Rockwell chronicled our changing society in the small detail sand nuanced scenes of ordinary people in everyday life, providing a personalized interpretation—albeit often an idealized one—of American identity. His depictions offered a reassuring visual haven during a time of momentous transformation as our country evolved into a complex, modern society. Rockwell’s contributions to our visual legacy, many of them now icons of American culture, have found a permanent place in our national psyche.


February 3, 1894 marked the birth of one of America’s most beloved artists, Norman Percevel Rockwell. Norman Rockwell was born in his parent’s Upper West Side Manhattan apartment.

The second son of businessman Jarvis Waring and Ann Mary (Hill) Rockwell, young Norman showed talent from the beginning. In fact, Rockwell remembered his first sketches as drawings of warships from the Spanish-American war. Jarvis Waring enjoyed reading various literary masterpieces aloud to his family, especially the works of classic author Charles Dickens. Young Norman would attentively listen as he sketched the characters while his father read the story aloud.

Creative talent is a hard thing to repress; some say that art “flows” out of artists. Rockwell was no different. During his high school years, he studied at the Chase School of Fine and Applied Art, every Saturday and most Wednesdays. Rockwell’s love for art was steadily growing at this point and, during his sophomore year, he left high school to attend the National Academy of Design. He described the school as “stiff and scholarly,” opting to transfer to the Art Students League in 1910.

Rockwell’s years at the Art Students League proved fruitful for the young painter/illustrator. At the tender age of sixteen, and still a student at the Art Students League, he painted his first commission of four Christmas cards. The following year he accepted his first real job as an artist illustrating the “Tell me Why Stories,” a series of children’s books. Shortly after that he was hired as the art director of “Boys’ Life” magazine, the official publication of the Boy Scouts of America. Rockwell continued his work with the Scouts, illustrating the official Boy Scout calendar for fifty years.

Following his success with the “Tell Me Why Series,” Rockwell moved to New Rochelle, New York and set up a studio with cartoonist Clyde Forsythe. He began freelancing his services to magazines such as “Life,” “Literary Digest” and “County Gentleman.” As his portfolio grew, so did his confidence in his artwork. In 1916 the 22 year-old Rockwell mustered up some courage and sold his first cover to "The Saturday Evening Post," perhaps the most prestigious magazine of that era. The picture was of an uncomfortable, young boy wearing a bowler hat, dressed somewhat maturely for his age and diligently pushing a baby carriage past a group of sneering boys in baseball uniforms. The artwork, entitled “Mother’s Day Off,” ran on the cover of the May 20, 1916 issue; that same year he married his first wife, teacher Irene O’Connor. Their marriage ended in 1928.

Americans were extremely receptive to Rockwell’s "Saturday Evening Post" covers. In fact, Rockwell went on to create 321 covers for the Post, each portraying typical American life and values. His covers were so successful that when his art appeared on the cover, 50,000 – 75,000 additional copies of the Saturday Evening Post sold at newsstands. "The Saturday Evening Post" covers eventually became his greatest legacy. For an artist in the first half of the 20th century, Rockwell did extremely well. By the onset of World War I, he was making $40,000 per year. Remarkably his salary never went below that point, even during the Great Depression.

The 1930s proved to be an amazing decade for Rockwell. In 1930 he married Mary Barstow. The couple moved to Arlington, Vermont and had three sons together: Jarvis, Thomas and Peter. In the mid-1930s Rockwell was approached to illustrate new editions of the Mark Twain classics “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer.” Always taking his work to the next level, Rockwell traveled to Hannibal, Missouri, the setting for most of Twain’s legendary novels, to depict more realistic illustrations for Twain’s fictional adventures. While there he created sketches of the city and brought home authentic regional costumes for models to wear while he painted his illustrations.

Through the years, Rockwell’s renditions of Americana appeared all over the world. During World War II he painted his widely-loved series the “Four Freedoms” as his personal contribution to the war effort. The patriotic paintings symbolized the war aims President Roosevelt set forth. The “Four Freedoms” were reproduced in four consecutive issues of “The Saturday Evening Post” alongside essays by contemporary American writers. “Freedom of Speech,” “Freedom to Worship,” “Freedom from Want” and “Freedom from Fear” were so successful that the works toured in an exhibition that raised $139.9 million for the war effort through the sales of war bonds.

In 1953 the Rockwell family relocated to Stockbridge, Massachusetts where Mary was treated at the Austen Riggs Center for her declining health. Six years after the move, Mary died unexpectedly. In 1960 Rockwell, with the help of his son Thomas, published his autobiography “My Adventures as an Illustrator.” The book proved to be a success, with excerpts carried in eight consecutive “Saturday Evening Post” issues. In 1961 Rockwell married Mary L. “Molly” Punderson and continued to live in Stockbridge and create his now nostalgic masterpieces.

In 1963, after 47 years at "The Saturday Evening Post," Rockwell parted ways with the magazine. He went to work for "Look" magazine almost immediately. There he was able to express his deepest concerns and interests, such as civil rights and the war on poverty.

Some of Rockwell’s most powerful creations came out of his years with "Look." One such piece was inspired by the unjust murders of three civil rights workers near Philadelphia, Mississippi. The painting, “Southern Justice,” was done in 1965 and depicts the horror endured by three young men, two white and one black, who had come to Mississippi in the fight for equality. One man is seen lying dead in the foreground; the next is standing in the glow of the attacker’s torch while defending the third man, who appears near death. Another, entitled “The Problem We All Live With” depicts a young black girl in a white dress being escorted to school by U.S. Marshals. Of his gripping and powerful illustrations for "Look," Rockwell wrote: “For 47 years, I portrayed the best of all possible worlds – grandfathers, puppy dogs – things like that. That kind of stuff is dead now, and I think it’s about time.

Bernard Dannenberg Galleries of New York City organized a retrospective show of Rockwell’s work in 1971. The artist went on to establish a trust to protect his personal collection of paintings in 1972. He placed his works in the Old Corner House Stockbridge Historical Society, which later became the Norman Rockwell Museum in a dedication ceremony on February 3, 1994, the 100th anniversary of Rockwell’s birth.

July 1976 brought Rockwell’s last published work, the cover of “American Artist.” He painted himself draping a “Happy Birthday” banner on the Liberty Bell in observance of the Fourth of July and the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. In 1977 President Gerald R. Ford presented Rockwell with the country's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom . The award was given for Rockwell’s “vivid and affectionate portraits of our country.

On November 8, 1978 Norman Rockwell died in his Stockbridge home at the age of 84, leaving an unfinished painting on his easel. His now nostalgic paintings and illustrations continue to live on in American history, depicting decades of pleasantry and pain. A second edition of his autobiography was published in 1988, with new material from Tom Rockwell, covering the final 20 years of his father’s life. Norman Rockwell's ability to relate to the values and events of an evolving society made him a hero, a visionary and a friend, not only to Americans but also to individuals all over the globe. In his own words, "Without thinking too much about it in specific terms, I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed."

Norman Rockwell is a man of tremendous talent. His paintings are so incredibly life-like allowing many people to mistake them for photos at first glance. His painting, The Runaway, is simply a still painting, silent during the initial observation, with two figures eying each other, one a veteran policeman and the other a young boy of about six. Critic John Berger proposes that people expect to me mystified when they view art as it’s currently displayed (103). However, artists often tell stories in their paintings and most people have already had these stories spoon fed directly to them instead of discovering it on their own by asking the painting questions. Asking the painting questions and engaging it in a sort of faux conversation can help reveal to a person much more about a painting than they observe on first observation. The following is a demonstration of this technique used with Rockwell’s painting to better understand and explain what is happening.

D: Are you telling a story?

P: Yes.

D: Is it a short story with a few details or a long intricate story?

P: I’d say it’s fairly short, only spanning the time period of a few hours.

D: Why is everything so focused and detailed in the very center yet fades as you move away from that center?

P: This is to help better tell the story of what is happening. This technique is to draw attention to the two main characters of my story.

D: Speaking of those two main characters, what has actually just happened?

P: I’m telling a story of a young boy who has obviously run away from his home. The moment captured in this painting is the moment after the officer sat down next to the boy and he slowly began to lean over until the boy looked up at him. Therefore, there is no conversation yet between the two characters.

D: What details and props do you use to add to the story?

P: Obviously, the knapsack underneath the boy’s stool is a dead giveaway and explains the majority of the title and its encompassing story. Of course, the setting plays a big part; the setting is a small café or bistro, which the boy has stopped in to grab a bite to eat, probably a piece of pie- what he gets to eat is not really important. The coffee cup to his right suggests there was a patron there not long ago. Finally, the owner’s facial expression says he could be thinking many different things. He finds the situation amusing, of course, but it’s almost as if he was the one who notified the officer. Whether he was the culprit who alerted the law or not is simply for the viewer to decide allowing multiple stories to unfold with each mindset the painting is viewed in. The waiter is probably a close friend of the officer and both know the boy’s folks. It sets the scene for what kind of town they are in – a small early 1950s suburb, similar (and I emphasize the word similar) to something you would have seen on The Brady Bunch.

D: Point of view in paintings can be critical to the story told, is there any significance in the view you chose?

P: Very much. This could easily have been done from the opposite side, from the owner’s perspective, yet that would not have achieved the comedy gained from seeing his facial expression in full glory. If painted from the boys perspective, it may not have the same effect either. It would put the viewer in the boys head and see what he is seeing. As a young boy, you may not have a full grasp on the situation, meaning the smirk on the owner’s face would not stand out as much or may be viewed entirely differently. By choosing the perspective I chose, it helps move the story along and gives the viewer a chance to speculate and to also be able to enter the painting. Am I just now entering into the café to see this happen? Or have I just gotten up to exit, leaving my coffee, passing the officer, and glancing back to see what will become of the boy? This gives the viewer a chance to experience two different stories in the context of one.

It’s interesting approaching an essay with the goal of writing a paper discussing a painting because I was skeptical at first but, I actually surprised myself. As I did the question and answer session I started out with the basic understanding of the painting and the simple story of what I previously perceived. However, as I went on I could see more and more story unfold and actually learned some new stuff I hadn’t otherwise noticed. The activity really helped open up my mind to the complexity behind the simple moment captured in this painting.

Berger has expectations about how people view art today. He expected that art has become warped because of reproductions; the impact of seeing a piece in its own glory is removed from modern society. He expects people to be told what the interpretation is, not to discover it themselves (107). I don’t fully agree with him, that is, there is validity in what he says but, I think there’s other things to consider. I think that there are many paintings out there that people look at and don’t have a clue, so they expect to be told to care about it and told that it’s worth something. On the other hand, everyone will come across some form of art or some painting they are drawn too or that catches their attention. These same people may never have had the chance to even experience art if it hadn’t been for reproductions.

After World War II was over, there was a man on the scene who was redefing painting with Abstract Impressionism. In 1947, describing one of his current works, Pollock said, “The painting has a life of its own (Malyon).” This quote is very interesting coming from a man whom was the forerunner of Abstract Expressionism, an art form with no visible agenda. I chose this quote because it clearly defines many paintings other than Pollock’s, such as Rockwell’s. The Runaway by Norman Rockwell clearly has as life of its own. Along with being extremely lifelike, The Runaway (and Rockwell) showcase(s) something that is not seen very often in paintings- comedy, the sort that is fresh, harmless, and is easy to relate to. Another striking feature of the painting is the complexity and detail put into it, only to describe a simple and peaceful time.

Rockwell paints with such detail and realism that his style is easily recognized. That’s why this painting sticks out to me, because it’s the most detailed and lifelike painting I’ve seen and at the same time, memorable. Rockwell doesn’t fit into any genre of painting, so it’s hard to classify his work; the best answer is Extreme Realism. This may seem a little unfair to other artists because he did paint during the Realism time period which was from 1865-1915 according to Patricia Penrose.

When I think of comedy, the first thing I think of is stand up comedians on a stage doing their bit or routine. If you asked me to list all the comedy and the incarnations of different forms it has taken, I could not list them all. I would not say art had comedy and if I did, it would be one of the last things I’d contribute. Comedy in painting isn’t the most mainstream of concepts. This is due to the sheer amount of mainstream art out there that doesn’t include comedy, so we just mill about not noticing it. The comedy featured in Rockwell’s The Runaway is refreshing; it’s a small comedic story that unfolds the longer we view it. The Runaway tells a story that all Americans can relate to at some time or another in their childhood, which was thinking about running away from home at a very early age. What would happen if you decided to act out the scene? In The Runaway your fate is foretold in a way that is almost ironic.

Nostalgia is a feeling many people have when seeing something that jogs their memory and takes them back to something they enjoyed. Nostalgia is also a large theme in The Runaway, along with his other pieces. As Berger states, “When in love, the sight of the beloved has completeness which no words and no embrace can match: a completeness which only the act of making love can temporarily accommodate (Berger 97). Rockwell paints art that is like a lost lover, whom you constantly made love to and it was great just not memorable. When a picture of the lover is viewed, it takes you right back to the times of excitement and overwhelming joy that you didn’t realize you had when it was happening because you took it for granted. As the world changed drastically, you can hear an elderly person recounting, “The times were a changin’,” and you don’t realize how life was until it’s lived and you are long past those years. You even forget these years, now focused on your future, your life, your job, and anything else of urgent importance. However, upon seeing a Rockwell painting, it briefly slows you down and allows you take a short look back. All of a sudden, you realize how peaceful and simpler the times were when you were a younger person. Even though Rockwell painted things of the past- depictions of times that are now long forgotten in this generation of youngsters, it still gives them the same nostalgic feeling because of tradition, history, and our good old parents and grandparents.

Norman Rockwell’s ability to paint with such Extreme Realism has caught the attention of many people throughout the years he painted. To this day, Rockwell’s works continue to grab a hold of people and allow them to have a moment of recollection. Whether they grew up in the post World War II era or not does not matter, what matters is the history we know as a nation. This history doesn’t even have to be understood or understood past a level of what the child in The Runaway could grasp. This is why I have been a fan of Rockwell’s ever since my father and I were cleaning out the garage and we found a collection of my dad’s old Rockwell paintings. We were going through it and The Runaway caught my eye because I could relate immediately. I could instantly associate with the young boy, reminding me of myself and the ventures I conjured up in my head. That reason, the ability to capture people the moment they glimpse, glance, peer, or blink at, is why Rockwell has an ability to create timeless masterpieces that are going be marveled at for years to come.


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