Day in the life of a little girl
'Day in the life of a little girl' (1952).

Normal Rockwell was a mid-20th century American painter and illustrator, known for his romanticized depictions of "the American way of life". His photo-realistic artwork was a combination of photograph reproduction and the artist's own vision. His illustrations and paintings are characterized by a strong sense of sentimentality and morality. Over a course of 47 years his covers appeared in the Saturday Evening Post and he additionally produced a large body of work for the Boy Scouts of America. Norman Rockwell influenced many painters, illustrators, cartoonists and even film directors trying to evoke a nostalgic, cosy and charming atmosphere. Although he never made a comic strip, some of his paintings make use of sequential narratives. 

Cover by Norman RockwellCover by Norman Rockwell

Early life and career
Norman Percevel Rockwell was born in 1894 in New York City. His father worked as a manager the Philadelphia textile firm George Wood, Sons & Company, though in their department in New York City. The family were direct descendants of  the 17th-century puritan John Rockwell, one of the earliest British settlers in Windsor, Connecticut. Norman Rockwell's nephew Dick Rockwell later became a comic artist. Norman himself showed early graphic talent. At age 14 he was already sent to the Chase Art School in New York City. He continued his studies at the local National Academy of Design and later the Art Students League. Among his teachers were Thomas Fogarty, George Bridgman, and Frank Vincent DuMond. Norman Rockwell ranked artists like J.C. Leyendecker and Al Parker among his graphic influences. He once wrote Parker a fan letter too. 

His earliest graphic assignments were done for youth publications like St. Nicholas Magazine. After graduation he became a staff artist for Boy's Life, the official magazine of the Boy Scouts of America.  Rockwell was only 19 when they promoted him as their art editor. It was the start of a lifelong association. Throughout the decades he contributed numerous illustrations for Boy's Life. Only between 1916 and 1926 he left them for a decade, though he still designed their annual Boy Scout calendars. Rockwell additionally livened up the pages of the monthly magazine of the American Red Cross.

A Scout is helpful
'A Scout is Helpful' (1941).

Saturday Evening Post
In 1915, the 21-year old Rockwell moved to New Rochelle, New York. He met cartoonist Vic Forsythe, with whom he shared a studio. Forsythe worked for the Saturday Evening Post and helped Rockwell become their house illustrator. In 1916 Rockwell designed his first cover for the magazine. 323 more would follow in the next decades up until 1963. Many paintings which established his reputation were all done for the Saturday Evening Post, which he provided with a strong visual identity. His success also led to assignments from other magazines, such as Literary Digest, the Country Gentleman, Leslie's Weekly, Judge, Peoples Popular Monthly and Life magazine. 

World War II
In 1917 the United States entered the First World War. Rockwell tried to enlist in the U.S. Navy, but was initially rejected for being underweight. After eating himself a bit fatter he was accepted. Still, he never saw any combat and was mostly active as an illustrator of military propaganda. Three decades later, when the Second World War broke out, Rockwell again served his country through a series of patriotic paintings. Most were published in the Saturday Evening Post, but also distributed as motivational posters. In 1943 Rockwell made four thematically connected paintings titled 'The Four Freedoms'. They were based on U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's similarly titled speech about the four essential human rights that should be universally protected: 'Freedom of Speech', 'Freedom of Worship', 'Freedom from Want' and 'Freedom from Fear'. Although they are separate paintings, many magazines and posters often group them together in a comic strip panel format. Especially 'Freedom from Want', which depicts a family serving turkey for dinner, has become an iconic image.

Since many men were drafted during World War II, numerous women took over their jobs. They drew admiration because they often combined these jobs with raising families. Lyricists Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb wrote a 1942 song, 'Rosie the Riveter', which described an allegorical female worker. The character became a symbol for all the nameless, but tireless women who did their share to support the war effort. On 29 May 1943 Rockwell visualized Rosie the Riveter on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Naturally he also motivated the U.S. scouts to serve their country with a patriotic illustration: 'We, Too, Have a Job to Do' (1944). 

Saying Grace
'Saying Grace'.

Norman Rockwell is most famous for his gentle, sentimental depictions of American rural family life. Most are humorous in nature and depict amusing, often adorable anecdotes. In 'Children Dancing at a Party' (1918) a girl is holding her foot in pain, while her male dance partner tries to apologize for stepping on her feet. A friendly doctor in 'The Doctor and the Doll' (1929) pretends to examine a girl's doll with his stethoscope. A tough-looking sailor in 'The Tattoo Artist' (1944) adds his girlfriend's name to his arm. Though, given how many other female names are crossed out on his arm, it's not certain whether he finally found his true love. 'The Young Lady with the Shiner' (1953) portrays a girl with a black eye, waiting to see the principal. Although she got beaten up, she still sports a big smile on her face, presumably because she won the fight. 'Breaking Home Ties' (1954) show a father and his son, waiting for a train that will bring the young, fancy dressed man to university. The contrast between the eager, naïve looking youngster and his sad, more down to Earth father is amusing and touching at the same time. 

Rockwell often used real-life locations and models to pose for his paintings. Sometimes he photographed them, so he could later copy these pictures on his canvas. Still he often changed poses and other details to create a better composition. His work has always appealed to general audiences because of the beautiful artwork and recognizable everyday situations. Later generations also appreciate it for an extra reason: nostalgia. His work shows a romanticized image of the United States during the first half of the 20th century. Especially in his work for the Saturday Evening Post, real problems don't seem to exist or are at least solvable. A prime example is 'The Runaway' (1958). The image shows a police officer and a little boy in a diner. The kid ran away from home in a whim. The sympathetic policeman buys him a treat, so he can listen to what he has to say and bring him home later. All people in Rockwell's paintings are overall nice average men and women. They are patriotic, devout Christians. In 'Saying Grace' (1951) a family prays before having dinner in a restaurant. In 'Walking to Church' (1953) parents and their children walk to chuch through a city street. Overall, The United States in Rockwell's work is a country of freedom, opportunity and promise. Citizens do their best to serve society and get along with one another. One of Rockwell's paintings, 'Working on the Statue of Liberty' (1946), was originally owned by Hollywood director Steven Spielberg. In 1994 he donated it to The White House, where it was on display in the Oval Office until 2017. 

Criticism and parodies
During his lifetime Rockwell was very popular with general audiences, but in serious art circles he wasn't always appreciated. Most saw him more as a magazine illustrator than a genuine artist. Interestingly enough, the modest Rockwell also considered himself an illustrator first and foremost. Critics regarded Rockwell's work as corny, conventional and too sentimental. His style spawned the eponym "Rockwellesque", which is attributed to scenes of old-fashioned Americana, but also used as a pejorative label for artworks considered too kitschy or idealistic. Novelist Vladimir Nabokov, famous for 'Lolita', had mixed feelings about Rockwell's talent and said that his "brilliant technique was put to banal use." From the 1990s on Mad Magazine often featured parodies of famous Rockwell paintings on its back cover, usually with the title 'If Norman Rockwell depicted...' followed by the current decade and the title of his original work. A famous cosy innocent and charming scene from his paintings was then deconstructed by adding cynical imagery like abandoned babies, neo nazi violence or school shootings. Several of these ideas were thought up by Mad writers Bob Bramble, Mike Snider, Scott Maiko or Desmond Devlin, while Richard Williams illustrated them in Rockwell's style. Williams also painted the cover of the book 'Mad Art: A Visual Celebration of the Art of Mad Magazine' (2003), where Mad's mascot Alfred E. Neuman spoofs Rockwell's famous self portrait painting. The album cover of 'Only A Lad' (1981) by Oingo Boingo features a parody of Norman Rockwell's cover for the 1960 Boy Scouts of America official handbook, drawn by Chris Hopkins. In 2006 Alfred Thomas Catalfo directed a parody of 'The Da Vinci Code' called 'The Norman Rockwell Code'. Just like the original bestseller by Dan Brown a couple finds secret clues in paintings to solve a mystery, although instead of Da Vinci it's the work of Rockwell. 

The Gossips by Norman Rockwell
'The Gossips' (1948).

Some of Rockwell's covers have sequential narratives, like 'The Gossips' (1948) and the 1952 companion pieces 'Day in the Life of a Little Boy' and 'Day in the Life of a Little Girl'. 'The Gossips' depicts a group of talking heads to show how rumors tends to spread. Although there is no dialogue, nor panels, it is still an easily understandable sequential narrative. Rockwell groups every separate scene as a dialogue between two people. Each person tells the gossip to somebody else. With 'Day In the Life of a Little Boy' and 'Day in the Life of a Little Girl' we see what respectively a young boy and girl do from the moment they wake up until they go to sleep. Their activities again lack dialogue or panels, but each scene serves as a chronological snapshot.

At one point Norman Rockwell considered making a daily comic strip for King Features. Elliot Caplin, brother of Al Capp and writer of such series like 'The Heart of Juliet Jones', would be the scriptwriter. Yet Rockwell soon discovered out that his way of drawing was far too time-consuming, so the project never came about. In 1948, together with Albert Dorne, he was also among the co-founders of the Famous Artists School, an institution for art correspondence courses. Rockwell motivated his neighbour John Cullen Murphy to become a cartoonist and acted as his mentor. Murphy collaborated  with Elliot Caplin on the sports comic 'Big Ben Bolt'. 

The Four Freedoms by Normal Rockwell
'The Four Freedoms'.

In 1963, Rockwell left the Saturday Evening Post and became a house cartoonist for Look. This marked a change in his familiar style. His wife had died from a heart attack in 1959 and the artist was still in grief. He also observed his home country with more critical eyes. Some of his paintings from this period still have a "feel good" atmosphere to them, such as works which depict space exploration. Others depict poverty and racism. His most iconic painting in this field is 'The Problem We All Live With' (1964). The work depicts a little black girl on her way to school. However, she is escorted by four adult U.S. marshals and not without reason. As the graffiti and remains of a thrown tomato show, she lives in a racist neighbourhood. Rockwell based the painting on a real-life incident. Three years earlier, on 14 November 1960, a six year-old African American girl named Ruby Bridges was legally allowed to go to a desegregated school in New Orleans, but still needed police protection in order to go there safely. It also took several days before most white parents allowed to send their children to her school. Between June and October 2011 U.S. President Barack Obama had the painting put on prominent public display in the White House. He also invited the now adult woman Ruby Bridges to the school. Another socially conscious painting by Rockwell, 'Southern Justice (Murder in Mississippi)' (1965), depicts the murder of civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. 

The problem we all live with
'The Problem We All Live With' (1964).

Graphic contributions
In addition to his magazine work, Rockwell was commissioned to make portrait paintings, for instance for U.S. Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. He also illustrated more than 40 books, including reprints of Mark Twain's 'Tom Sawyer' and 'Huckleberry Finn'. Rockwell designed posters for several Hollywood films, such as the adventure film 'The Adventures of Marco Polo' (1938), westerns 'Along Came Jones' (1945) and 'Stagecoach' (1966), the comedy 'Cinderfella' (1960) and drama pictures like 'The Magnificent Ambersons' (1942), 'The Song of Bernadette' (1943) and 'The Razor's Edge' (1946). Rockwell has a cameo in 'Stagecoach' too, playing a poker player. He also made advertising art, most notably for Coca Cola. His drawings additionally livened up sheet music, stamps and murals. In 1969 he was commissioned to paint the Glen Canyon Dam. 

Album covers
Rockwell livened up the cover of the album 'The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper' (1969) by Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper. In 1974 he was approached by David Bowie. Bowie wanted to make a concept album which was a love-hate letter to the United States. In his opinion Rockwell's art was a perfect evocation of idealized America. However, the artist told him that it would take six months to complete his design for an album cover. Since this would delay the album's release, Bowie eventually used a glamorous photograph for his album, titled 'Young Americans' (1975). 

Tom Sawyer by Norman Rockwell
'Tom Sawyer' (1936).

In 1958 Norman Rockwell was inducted in the Society Illustrators Hall of Fame, as their very first inductee. U.S. President Gerald Ford honored him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977). Since 1996 Rockwell's name also lives on in an asteroid. 

Final years and death
Norman Rockwell died in 1978 in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, of emphysema at the age of 84. His son, Thomas Rockwell, is a children's book author. 

Tattoo Artist (1944)
'Tattoo Artist' (1944).

Legacy and influence
Like most artists, Rockwell's reputation rose in old age. In 1969, while still alive, he received his own museum in his hometown Stockbridge Massachusetts. The Norman Rockwell Museum has the largest collection of original Rockwell art, and also houses the Normal Rockwell Archives. The artist remains popular and several of his paintings have achieved iconic status. Some have been auctioned for high prizes, ranging in the millions. Even his staunchest critics respect Rockwell's graphic talent, as well as his socially conscious works which supported U.S. troops during World War II and dared to support African-American civil rights activists in a time when racial tensions divided U.S. society.

Among his admirers are/were celebrities like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Lana del Rey and Michael Jackson. Lana del Rey even named a 2019 album 'Norman Fucking Rockwell!!'. Some Hollywood films set in a nostalgic version of 1930s, 1940s and/or 1950s America have often taken inspiration from Rockwell's paintings. In some cases they even made a direct shout-out. Examples can be found in 'Empire Of The Sun' (1987), 'Forrest Gump' (1994) and 'The Iron Giant' (1999). In the third album of Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido's comic series 'Blacksad' - which is set in the 1950s - a tortoise billionaire stands in front of an abstract painting, striking the same pose as the museum visitor in Rockwell's painting 'The Connoiseur' (1962). Norman Rockwell was a strong influence on artists like Anton Pieck, Reynold BrownMarten ToonderGaston EbingerMort DruckerRobert Crumb, Henk Kuijpers, Frank Cho, Arthur Suydam, Sylvain EscallonRené FolletChristopher HartMarcus Hamilton, Karen Matchette and Rick Tulka.

Books and documentaries about Norman Rockwell
In 1960, Norman Rockwell released his autobiography, 'My Adventures as an Illustrator', following the death of his wife Mary a year earlier. It was co-written with his son Thomas. In 1972 Robert Deubel directed the documentary 'Norman Rockwell's World... An American Dream' , for which the artist himself was interviewed too. In 1973 it won an Academy Award for 'Best Short Subject'. 

Artwork by Norman Rockwell

The Norman Rockwell Museum

Series and books by Norman Rockwell in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:


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