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Norman Rockwell - Biography and Legacy

American Illustrator, Painter, and Author

Born: February 3, 1894 - New York City
Died: November 8, 1978 - Stockbridge, Massachusetts
Movements and Styles:
American Realism

Biography of Norman Rockwell

Childhood and Education

Norman Percevel Rockwell was the second of three sons born to Jarvis Waring Rockwell, the manager of a Philadelphia textile company, and Anne Mary Rockwell, an anxious but adventuresome wife, mother and homemaker. His parents were very religious and he and his brothers spent many hours with the choir at St. Luke in the Fields in Greenwich Village. During summer months, the family lived in New England on country farms. Rockwell stated in his autobiography "I have no bad memories of my summers in the country [and they] had a lot to do with what I painted later on." Even as a young boy, he learned to admire the farm families' open expressiveness and enjoyed the calm of milking the cows which contrasted with his busy city life.

The young Norman Rockwell enjoyed drawing from an early age so his father sat drawing with him and his younger brother, Jerry, many nights at the family dining table. Jarvis had a fine mastery of perspective and form which he had developed by copying from popular illustrated magazines. Primary school lessons, meanwhile, did not make much sense to Norman even though the school encouraged drawing and coloring. However, when Norman was about 8 years old, his father began reading the novels of Charles Dickens to the boys and Norman was transfixed. He began drawing pictures of Dickens's characters and later reflected "I began to look around me [...] to look at things the way I imagined Dickens would have looked at them."

While Norman was still just 8 years old, his grandmother passed away and he and his family moved to Manhattan to live with his grandfather (known affectionately to the family as Father Rockwell). Norman was behind other boys of his age in physical prowess and the New York City schools stressed athletic activities at the time. He tried weight exercises but could not correct his gawkiness and pigeon-toed gait. He later commented on his situation: "All I had was the ability to draw, which as far as I could see didn't count for much. But [...] I began to make it my whole life [...] My feelings no longer paralyzed me." The young Norman still felt he fell short of the model American male, however, and having the middle name Percevel contributed to his insecurities.

Early Training

By the time Norman reached teenage years, his extended family had moved out of New York City to Mamaroneck, NY. Their new home was in a pleasant, sleepy village near enough to the Atlantic Ocean to hear the waters lap. His school and church life proved less tedious and more relaxed too. Norman started to meet new friends with whom he enjoyed a strong camaraderie. Old enough to understand the financial strains of his family, Norman decided to make some money; he mowed lawns, bought a mail delivery route to the wealthy area of the village and began tutoring. He tutored several students in algebra, drawing and painting including Ethel Barrymore, later regarded as "The First Lady of the American Theatre". At the age of 14, Norman began taking art classes at The Chase School of Art where he had his first instruction in the history of art which brought him knowledge of James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent.

Within two years, he was even more secure about his intent to pursue his passion and he dropped out of high school, enrolling in the National Academy of Design at his own expense. Later he transferred to the Art Students League of New York to study with Thomas Fogarty and George Bridgman. Fogarty specialized in illustration which prepared Rockwell for early commercial commissions. Bridgman, meanwhile, taught him further technical skills for life studies.

Fogarty helped Rockwell find his first professional commission: a chance to illustrate twelve "Tell-Me-Why" stories which were early parent-child interactive storybooks. He found a studio in Brooklyn Heights near the Brooklyn Bridge large enough to share with Ernest Blumenschein, one of his illustration teachers. At the Art Students League, he enrolled in one drawing course and also attended the National Academy of Design for Life Studies and Illustration. In late 1912, when Rockwell was 18, Thomas Fogarty recommended that he show his work to Edward Cave who had recently been appointed to fully develop Boys' Life magazine as a national publication. Cave gave Rockwell two preliminary assignments with which to prove himself; one was to create a camping guide for the Boy Scouts; the other to continue his contributions for Boys' Life until he had created four hundred illustrations. At 19, Rockwell became the art editor for Boys' Life, published by the Boy Scouts of America.

First published magazine cover, <i>Scout at Ship's Wheel</i>, <i>Boys' Life</i> September edition, 1919.

Around the same time, Rockwell convinced his family to move to New Rochelle, New York, which was a more sophisticated setting and home to several well-known artists including Joseph C. Leyendecker. He soon developed some fine friendships and found a new studio space. In 1914, Rockwell had become friends with Clyde Victor Forsythe, an older fellow boarder and cartoonist, who also worked for Boys' Life. The more experienced artist believed fully in Rockwell's talent and they rented Frederic Remington's old iron barn as their studio. Forsythe urged his friend to submit his work to the Saturday Evening Post; in fact, Rockwell had often longed to see his work as the cover of the popular magazine. Between the end of May 1916 and January 1917, Rockwell's paintings were used for six weekly issues of the magazine. In 1916, meanwhile, Rockwell met Irene O'Connor, a school teacher three years his senior - she accepted his impulsive proposal. The marriage was not easy however since Irene expected him to have a regular work schedule and wanted his companionship for many social events.

Between 1916 and 1919 Rockwell created some twenty-five Saturday Evening Post covers, and many story illustrations. He had already become a national phenomenon with Life magazine featuring him in a full-page advertisement for new subscriptions. Rockwell considered Life to be the "greatest show window in America" yet his rapid success left the 25 year old feeling exhausted. Having taken time out to recuperate, by 1920 Rockwell's illustrations began to show more painterly sophistication than his earlier figures which were caricature-like. His new approach seems to have reflected Bridgman's life drawing instruction and his new work gained him respect among the famous illustrators who resided in New Rochelle. He became good friends with Leyendecker, whom he admired personally and professionally. While Rockwell ambled through the village streets, he would look for the best models for each character in his artwork. Rockwell's friend and studio mate, Clyde Forsythe, remarked that whenever his schedule seemed overwhelming, he would take an unplanned trip but would also worry that his clients would forget about him.

Rockwell in 1921, 27 years old

In 1922 Rockwell decided to study abroad and traveled to Paris for a few weeks to attend art school and to visit museums and galleries. His short tour took him on to southern France, Italy and Switzerland. After his return to America, Rockwell made several paintings on the theme of travel. One portrayed an ordinary office worker absorbed in reading a postcard sent from abroad while another showed a young boy viewing scenes of exotic places. The theme of escape became a prominent feature of his work during the 1920s and 1930s.

<i>Post</i> magazine cover illustration from the January 1922 issue

Rockwell had been painting the annual covers for the conservative Boy Scout Calendar for several years, but by 1924 he had grown weary of this commission. However, once he had raised his concerns with the publisher, they offered Rockwell a highly lucrative new contract. On the back of his new found affluence, Rockwell made the decision to move out of his overcrowded house. Irene was reluctant to leave her family behind, so Rockwell moved to a male-only artists' club located in Manhattan. The club was established in 1880 and had been home to luminaries such as Howard Pyle and Charles Hawthorne. Norman and Irene soon reunited and moved to a newly built house near New Rochelle. In 1925, Rockwell was assigned the Post's first four color cover illustration for the February 6, 1926 issue.

In August 1926 Rockwell felt that he needed a break from his family life to refocus all his energy on his painting. He relocated to a cabin owned by Irene's family in Louisville Landing where he could fish and paint at a nearby studio. His friend Clyde Forsythe commented: "There has never been a period of brilliance in the course of Norman Rockwell's advance. The answer is Work! After work, more work. After work in the studio, work at home, reading worthwhile literature on art and life, thinking out ideas - studying - work. Rockwell's hobbies are work and work." His "work" had become by now a staple feature of magazine covers for Boys' Life, Saturday Evening Post, Life, and Look. Yet in the world of fine art critics, and especially Clement Greenberg, one of his harshest critics, his painting was scorned for being overly sentimental, too commercial, and simply folksy. As the champion of Abstract Expressionism, Greenberg insisted that Rockwell was less important than even the most humble artist.

Mature Period

In 1929, while on a family break at Louisville Landing, Irene and Norman agreed to take separate summer vacations. Rockwell traveled with friends to France, Austria and Spain where he visited museums, hiked in the mountains and make sketches. But on his return, Irene, who had by now fallen in love with a more masculine man, announced that she wanted a divorce. Though a serial philanderer himself, Rockwell was deeply depressed and traveled to California to be supported by Forsythe.

While in California, Forsythe introduced Rockwell to a middle school math teacher, and would-be writer, named Mary Barstow. Separated in age by some 14 years, the couple were married on April 17, 1930 in Mary's parents' beautiful garden in Alhambra, Los Angeles. In 1931, the Standard-Star published an interview with Rockwell in which it described him as an anomaly in art history: "There probably never has been in the world's history before an artist with a regular audience of at least 6,000,000 people, so may we please introduce you to Mr. Norman Rockwell, whose covers for the Saturday Evening Post are known, we venture to say, to every inhabitant of the United States."

In 1932 an anxious Rockwell asked Mary to move to Paris with him in the hope that a change of location might spark his flagging energy and confidence. Mary agreed and they sailed quickly with the first of their three children, Jarvis, who was only 5 months old. Rockwell did feel a new enthusiasm having boarded the ship, but once settled in Paris, the couple quickly realized that unless they returned to the US, Rockwell would struggle to gain the meaningful employment needed to support his young family. The couple returned to New Rochelle that fall. Rockwell soon learned that he was included in the 1932-33 publication of Who's Who. Mary spent her time preparing for the birth of their second child, Thomas, and Norman resumed working in his studio.

Rockwell's illustration for Huckleberry Finn, written by Mark Twain

In 1935, Rockwell was offered a new commission that truly sparked his imagination: George Macy, of the Macy Department Stores, wanted to celebrate the centennial of Samuel L. Clemens' birth - better known to the world as Mark Twain - by publishing new versions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. To achieve historical and geographical accuracy, Rockwell decided to explore Hannibal, Missouri (where Twain's stories are set). Rockwell created a photographic record of his trip (a somewhat controversial technique amongst "real" artists at the time) and reread both books. Finally, Rockwell produced 8 color plates for each book which were published in 1936 and 1940 respectively.

In 1939, Norman and Mary moved their family to Arlington, Vermont. Arlington was a country area with many farms, which suited their desire for a more rural existence in which to raise three boys and for Norman to paint in peace. The Rockwell family was happy in their move to Vermont where they had become well acquainted with the townspeople, joined in weekly square dances and attended monthly town meetings.

Late Period and Death

Norman Rockwell, <i>Golden Rule</i>, 1961 Cover illustration for <i>The Saturday Evening Post</i>, April 1, 1961

The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 bringing the US into World War II. Rockwell felt that it was his duty to paint images to remind Americans, especially the soldiers, that their freedom and liberty was the most important and valuable possession. His principal inspiration came from President Roosevelt's 1941 address to Congress: "At no previous time has American security been threatened from without as it is today." In 1943, Rockwell painted his Four Freedoms paintings which were reproduced in four issues of the Post accompanied by essays from contemporary writers. The series toured the United States and brought in more than $130 million toward the war effort.

Towards the end of the war, the Rockwell family relocated to an 18th century farmhouse in West Arlington where the artist converted an old barn into a new working studio, his previous studio and all its contents having been destroyed by fire a year earlier. Mary and Norman spent the snowy winter of 1944 hiking and enjoying Vermont but by the fall of 1948, it was clear that Mary had developed a drinking problem. She was lonely and exhausted and struggled to keep up with her duties, especially managing her husband's financial records. Mary sought psychiatric treatment at the private institution Austen Riggs where she received shock treatments during 1952. Norman had also consented to therapy for his own anxiety and frequent bouts with depression and in December 1953, the Rockwells took the joint decision to move to Stockbridge, Massachusetts to be nearer to the treatment center, and to generally enjoy the social and cultural benefits of an urban setting. By spring the family had moved into a new house. Norman had a new studio, and he and Mary began attending live model sketching classes together.

With all three boys in private schools, and the expenses for their own health care mounting, Rockwell needed to generate new income. In the summer of 1955 he began working again for the Post for whom he agreed to paint portraits of the Presidential candidates Adlai Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower. Meanwhile, in the fall of that year, the publisher Doubleday commissioned Rockwell to write his autobiography (he was 65 at the time). On August 25, 1959, tragedy struck when Mary unexpectedly passed away at the age of 51 from heart failure. Norman was very badly shaken and he became unfocused, disturbed, and depressed. His family and friends rallied around him, but the Post intended to begin publishing excerpts of his autobiography in February 13, 1960, an occasion for which he need to focus on producing the cover image.

Soon thereafter, Rockwell met Molly Punderson, an attractive, 62-year-old, well-educated teacher, from whom he took an adult poetry class at the public library. The couple were married in October 1961. That same year, he was delighted to learn that he had been called "part of the tradition of humorous genre painters dating at least from seventeenth century Holland." His self-esteem soared at being considered a master artist of genre rather than a mere illustrator.

Russian Schoolroom (1967)

Norman was interested in studying Social Realism and Mary wanted to learn about the Russian school system. Norman had made sketches of the school children on an earlier trip in 1964, and later made the work Russian Schoolroom (1967) that he created in a new (for the artist) photo-realist style.

Between 1963 and 1964, Molly and Norman flew to Russia for a World Fair and then on to Egypt where Rockwell painted the portrait of President Nasser. This would be his last cover for the Post which was in financial decline. Both Look and McCall's magazines were interested in his work but Norman, now aged 69, felt that Look would be more interesting since it included foreign coverage, series about religion and news of southern racial tensions. His 1964 painting for Look, The Problem We All Live With, which tackled the theme of segregation, had a great social impact in the era of the Civil Rights protests.

That same year, Molly and other women from Stockbridge, purchased an historical building in which to create a museum/historical society. Rockwell loaned them many paintings and soon the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge was a viable cultural attraction. Molly also urged her husband to take time to organize his art collection and his estate. When a well-known Manhattan gallery asked him about having a show in the fall, Norman was further energized to organize his many paintings. His first solo exhibition was held in the Bernard Danenberg Gallery in 1968. That fall, Harry Abrams published the first major biography of Rockwell. During the 1970s, the renewed interest in Rockwell's work reflected a general rejection of abstract art. Rockwell made a publicity tour to help promote the book and appeared on several talk shows. By the fall of 1971, he was once again completely exhausted. He had worked through a very hot summer and his August portrait of Frank Sinatra showed a decline in his abilities.

In 1972 The Danenberg Gallery sponsored a traveling show titled "Norman Rockwell: A Sixty-Year Retrospective" which toured nine cities over two years. Audiences were huge even if critical opinion was divided. By the end of August 1973, Rockwell was feeling poorly enough to record his periods of mental fatigue on his calendar. He had suffered from pneumonia for years and X-rays now confirmed that he had emphysema. By 1974, aged 80, Norman suffered a minor stroke. Molly commented on her husband's deteriorating health "I knew Norman wasn't really okay [...] just wasn't always on cue, sometimes fine, other times somehow off." Rockwell's sense of color had also become altered by his cataracts and he became unable to distinguish some ranges of color. On November 8, 1978, Norman Rockwell passed away peacefully in his own bed. David Wood, a family friend and tenant, led a short eulogy beginning with Norman's favorite poem, "Abou Ben Adhem". It is a romantic poem by the British poet James Leigh Hunt about the love of one man for his fellow men which is also a love of God.

The Legacy of Norman Rockwell

The Connoisseur (1962) is Rockwell’s famous image of a gentleman viewing (and engulfed in) abstract art.

Sneered at by some in the high art community - though admired by the likes of Willem de Kooning and the German painter and satirist George Grosz who praised Rockwell for his "excellent technique, clearness of touch" and a populist instinct that was "so universal that he would be appreciated everywhere" - Rockwell's contribution to American Art has been subject to justified revision. As his biographer Deborah Solomon observed in 2013, New York art sophisticates, and even her own art history professors, were scathing about Rockwell but his art has proved to have "far more staying power than that of countless abstract painters who were hailed in his lifetime." Writing in 1998, meanwhile, New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl, stated: "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."

The Norman Rockwell Museum, in Stockbridge MA

Indeed, Rockwell has had a lasting and profound effect on America's self-image. Arguably the American public's all-time favorite painter - The New York Times once suggested that his work was on a par with Mark Twain's novels in its significance to America's self-image - his images, which are still mass reproduced, are viewed today almost as paeans for a lost age. His images of suburban America in the '20s, '30s, '40s and '50s meanwhile have provided source material for Hollywood directors including George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis whose Oscar winning 1994 film Forrest Gump pays direct homage to Rockwell by recreating several of his paintings as scenes. Rockwell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977, a year before his death. Today, the Norman Rockwell Museum is home the world's largest collection of his art and is committed to promoting "the power of visual images to shape and reflect society." Its mission statement reads thus: "The Museum advances social good through the civic values of learning, respect and inclusion and is committed to upholding the rights and dignity of all people through the universal messages of humanity and kindness portrayed by Norman Rockwell."

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Content compiled and written by Cheryl VanBuskirk

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"Norman Rockwell Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Cheryl VanBuskirk
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 13 Aug 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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