NORMAN ROCKWELL: "THE PEOPLE'S ARTIST"
by Stan Griffin
Whether you label Norman Rockwell "artist" or "illustrator," his impact on the people of our country is impossible to measure. He always thought of himself as an illustrator. "Even though he used the traditional tools of the easel painter, he worked with the capacities of the modern printing press in mind."
A high school dropout, Rockwell became a professional at the age of 16. His career encompassed two World Wars, a Great Depression, and an earth-shaking Civil Rights movement. For more than 50 years, Rockwell's paintings were among the most recognizable in America.
Today the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts plays host yearly to almost 200,000 visitors, many of them young people who " ... have no trouble relating (to Rockwell) ..." even though he died two decades ago. The messages expressed in his paintings are "timeless."
In the words of Norman Rockwell: "The story of my life is, really, the story of my pictures and how I made them ... In one way or another, everything I have seen or done has gone into my pictures ... "
Those pictures, say his fans, have " ... shown the best side of ordinary people ... given us an image to inspire toward ... , (and has) made average Americans special ... " It can be said that Rockwell " ... celebrated the qualities of kindness, decency, family ties, and patriotism." His subjects were " ... common people caught in ordinary situations ... , and the pictures ... invited the viewer into the scene to enjoy ... and share."
Rockwell was a careful craftsman, painted in realistic detail, and was " ... a stickler for authenticity." Among his most frequent subjects were daily happenings in small towns and episodes in family life that told vivid stories, often humorously. Some of his favorite scenes were: a grinning tomboy with a black eye outside a principal's office; a bare-bottomed boy about to get a shot in a doctor's office; a doctor examining a girl's "sick" doll with a stethescope; and a teacher's birthday party in her classroom.
Norman Perceval Rockwell was born on February 3, 1894 in New York City. His father, Jarvis Rockwell, was office manager for a New York branch of the George Woods Sons & Company (a Philadelphia textile mill). His mother was Nancy Hill Rockwell, daughter of Howard Hill, a man who wanted to be a portrait painter. That ambition was never realized; and Hill spent his life going door-to-door looking for jobs painting pets, farm animals, and an occasional house!
Rockwell described himself as a boy with these words: "skinny, pigeon-toed, narrow shoulders, a big Adams apple, and glasses." Two nicknames he acquired were "Snow in the Face" (this was what his mother called him because he was so pale) and "Mooney" (from his round, rimless glasses).
Rockwell began sketching at age four. While his father read Charles Dickens' stories to him, he drew various characters who took part in those tales. When Norman was nine years old, the family moved out of New York City into a home in Mamaroneck, New Jersey. An eighth-grade teacher, Julia Smith, is often credited by Rockwell with " ... encouraging his drawing and helping him along ..."
As a high school freshman, Rockwell began his formal art training, attending (part-time) the Chase School of Fine Arts in New York City (a four-hour trolley ride from Mamaroneck). His parents were against his choice of careers, so Norman had to earn his own money for tuition. He delivered mail, gave art lessons, designed Christmas cards, and even appeared as an extra at performances of the Metropolitan Opera.
Rockwell dropped out of high school in his sophomore year to study full time (with a scholarship) at the National Academy of Design. Two years later he transferred to the Arts Student League where he encountered teachers who influenced him greatly.
While still attending school, he did illustrations for books, magazines, and periodicals. He also designed a Boy Scout hiking handbook and even composed tombstone inscriptions for a catalog. Norman turned professional at the age of 16 and soon did his first cover for the "Saturday Evening Post." This was the beginning of an extended association in which 320 of his drawings appeared on its cover. He averaged ten each year over this span of years until the magazine ceased publication. It is estimated that each of his covers was seen by four million people.
In 1913 Rockwell became the art director of the official Boy Scout magazine, "Boys' Life." Besides doing covers, he also illustrated stories being published. Rockwell was responsible for the art work on all of the Boy Scout Calendars from 1926-1976.
The country went to war in 1917; and the following year, Rockwell enlisted in the navy. Stationed in South Carolina with the rank of Painter and Varnisher First Class, he spent his short naval career doing portraits of officers, their wives, and noncommissioned sailors. After his discharge, he returned to civilian life to continue his painting.
Rockwell was a dedicated worker. He got assignments from various publications such as "McCall's," "Ladies' Home Journal," "Country Gentleman," "Literary Digest," "Peoples' Popular Monthly," and "Popular Science." Rockwell did pictures for editions of "Huckleberry Finn" and "Tom Sawyer." In addition to covers and story illustrations, Rockwell also did many advertisements.
A wide segment of the American population looked forward to each new "Rockwell" and bought copies of the magazines that contained his pictures. A cover guaranteed the sale of an additional 50,000-60,000 copies. His fans soon numbered in the millions.
From the beginning, Rockwell used live models while painting his pictures. (A sharp-eyed reader could spot him IN a few!) He was constantly on the lookout for boys, girls, men, women, and even animals to pose for him. He became a familiar figure in his home town (New Rochelle, New York; later Arlington, Vermont and Stockbridge, Massachusetts), roaming the streets in search of models.
Norman's technique was to place models in position and with facial expressions that fit his current idea, then create the painting he wanted. Rest periods were necessary, especially for the children. Standing or sitting in one position became tiring as Rockwell worked long hours.
Eventually Rockwell changed his procedure. He would bring in the models, pose them, and then have a professional photographer take numerous photos from various angles. Once they had been developed, he would lay the photos on the floor of his studio and go to work at his easel. By the mid-1930s, he was doing practically all of his work this way.
In 1941 the U. S. was in danger of being drawn into world war. Our country was doing everything it could to help the Allies (including Great Britain) in their struggle against Germany and Italy. It seemed only a matter of time before we aligned ourselves with them on the field of battle.
In a January speech to Congress. President Franklin Roosevelt set forth his ideals for a better world in a future time of peace. They became known as the "Four Freedoms." His words:
" ... We look forward to a world founded on four essential human freedoms ...(first) ...freedom of speech and expression ... (second)... freedom ... to worship God in (our) own way ...(third)... freedom from want ... a healthy peacetime life ... (fourth)... freedom from fear ... no nation will ... commit acts of physical aggression against any neighbor ..." Later these were included in the :"Atlantic Charter," a document issued by the Allied powers "on behalf of people everywhere."
After Pearl Harbor was attacked later that year, the U. S. became a participant in World War II. Those freedoms were widely publicized by our government to explain why we were fighting.
Norman Rockwell was impressed with these "Four Freedoms" and wanted to paint them in such a way that would be understandable and meaningful to all Americans. One July night in 1942 he awoke from sleep with an idea he called the "best I ever had." He would draw them in four scenes with his neighbors as models. A New England town meeting would portray "freedom of speech." A Thanksgiving dinner would represent "freedom from want." People of various faiths praying would illustrate "freedom of worship." A father and mother putting their children to bed would portray "freedom from fear."
Rockwell took his idea, along with preliminary sketches, to Washington, D. C. believing that they could help in the war effort, perhaps to " ... stimulate factory production .. (and to) ... rally and inform people ..." For two days he made the rounds of government offices. Everywhere, he got the same answer: "No, thanks!" One official even said: " ... we'll use REAL artists!"
Rejected in the nation's capital, Rockwell took his idea to the "Saturday Evening Post" editor. He saw more in it than the Washington bureaucrats had and told Norman to "drop everything and finish them!" It took him six months to complete the job, and he shipped them off to the "Post" in Philadelphia. (Each was a framed canvas, 44 inches by 48 inches.)
They published the "Four Freedoms" in February, 1943: one painting in four successive issues. They were not covers but instead appeared inside in full-color, full-page presentations. Each was accompanied by an essay from a well-known American writer. Almost immediately, 25,000 readers wrote to order sets of full-color reproductions. There was a "massive outpouring of patriotism." Rockwell received 70,000 letters from people reacting to his work. And the government suddenly became interested!
The Office of War Information (O.W.I.) published 2 1/2 million posters of Rockwell's paintings. They also decided that the "Four Freedoms" could promote the sale of War Bonds.
A "Four Freedoms Show" opened in Washington, D.C. with an accompanying exhibit featuring the four originals. Each bond purchaser received a set of full-color copies. Norman Rockwell was there to sign them.
The Treasury Department took the originals on a 16-week tour of 16 major U. S. cities including New York, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Rockwell's paintings were seen by nearly 1 1/4 million people who bought over $133 million worth of War Bonds. All told, they distributed 4 million copies of the "Four Freedoms" paintings.
Many observers consider these pictures to be the triumph of Rockwell's career. They are also " ... enduring national symbols ...", "great human documents in ... paint and canvas ...", and " ... among the most widely produced and most famous paintings of all time!"
A fire destroyed Rockwell's studio during the summer of 1943. He lost much of his art equipment, a lot of personal items, and many of his early paintings.
In the 1960s for the first time, Rockwell used controversial subjects for his paintings. The country was unsettled due to social problems (such as civil rights and integration), politics, the space program, etc. There had been a " ... change in the thought climate in America ..." With his work, Rockwell was able to " ... exert great influence on the American public."
His painting, "The Golden Rule," (1961) promoted tolerance among peoples of the world. He started a large-scale copy at the United Nations, but it was never completed. (Today, there is a mosaic of the picture on a wall of the U. N. headquarters building in New York City.) Rockwell received the Interfaith Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews in recognition of his work on that picture, also in 1961.
Here are a few more examples of his later work: (1) a young black girl being escorted into an all-white school by federal marshals; (2) young African-American brother and sister exchanging glances with white children in an all-white neighborhood where their family was moving; (3) a commemoration of the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi--it showed the fallen young men painted in brown with red bloodstains; (4) the Apollo 11 spacecraft on the moon. Many of his pictures from this period appeared in "Look Magazine."
Rockwell's output diminished during the 1970s as health problems arose. Two falls from his bicycle weakened him. He had an excellent income from the sale of prints, lithographs, likenesses on plates, and porcelain figurines. He spent a lot of his time signing these items. He went to his studio every day, but only rarely did he do any painting.
February 3, 1976 (his 82nd birthday) was "Norman Rockwell Day" in Stockbridge as the town honored their most distinguished citizen. A 90-minute parade contained floats that displayed life-sized reproductions of famous Rockwell. paintings. After the festivities ended, he said: "I'm tired but proud."
That same year Rockwell's last cover was published on the "American Artist" magazine. It was a self-portrait that showed him tying a ribbon on the Liberty Bell. A year later he received a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest peacettime award, from President Gerald Ford.
Rockwell was confined to a wheelchair during his final days, but he still wanted to go to his studio. He was only able to do line drawings in pen and ink. When he was finally confined to his bed, he continued to ask for paper and a pencil.
Norman Rockwell died on November 8, 1978. His wife told reporters that: "He died of being 84." After a funeral at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Stockbridge, he was buried in the city's cemetery. Some of the townspeople commented: "Mr. Rockwell has just moved on to another town."
The Norman Rockwell Museum had opened in 1967. Two years after Norman's death, it relocated to its present location. His entire studio was moved intact into a building near the museum. Today it can be seen just as he left it with paint brushes and paint boxes near an easel with a partially finished painting. The museum houses the world's largest collection of Rockwell's work. There are more than 570 original paintings and drawings along with 100,000 photos, letters, etc. The undoubted highlight: all of the original "Four Freedoms" paintings.
While appealing to the average American, Rockwell was not a favorite of this country's art critics. It distressed him that they didn't consider him to be a "serious" artist. Many thought his painting was "old-fashioned ," "too corny and sentimental," and "lacked artistic merit." One of his basic principles was that the relationship between a painting and an observer was "one-on-one without the need of intermediaries." (someone to explain the artist's purpose or ideas)
It is estimated that during his lifetime Norman Rockwell produced 4,000 works of art. He painted portraits of celebrities like John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, and Colonel Sanders. Several U. S. Presidents posed for him. Today his paintings still hang in some of this country's most prestigious museums.
Indeed, Norman Rockwell's work is "a reminder of earlier days when life was simpler and better." His pictures gave hope for the future, telling us that "life goes on" through the hard times. Today's people would, he was sure, make the best of what comes along.
Norman Rockwell "delighted, amused, and touched" more of us than any other painter.
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