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

Norman Rockwell was a mid-20th century American painter and illustrator, known for his romanticized depictions of "the American way of life". His photo-realistic illustrations and paintings are characterized by a strong sense of sentimentality and morality. Over a course of 47 years, his drawings appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post and he additionally produced a large body of work for the Boy Scouts of America. Painters, illustrators, cartoonists and film directors trying to evoke a nostalgic and charming atmosphere, often would look at Norman Rockwell’s work. Although he never made an actual comic strip, some of Rockwell's paintings make use of sequential narratives.

Cover by Norman RockwellCover by Norman Rockwell
Cover illustrations by Norman Rockwell for The Saturday Evening Post. The first image is for the 19 February 1956 issue, the second for the 4 December 1920 one. 

Early life and career
Norman Percevel Rockwell was born in 1894 in New York City. His father was a manager of the New York City branch of the textile firm George Wood, Sons & Company. The Rockwell family were direct descendants of the 17th-century puritan John Rockwell, one of the earliest British settlers in Windsor, Connecticut. Showing an early talent for drawing, Norman was sent at age fourteen to the Chase Art School in New York City. He continued his studies at the local National Academy of Design and later at the Art Students League. Among his teachers were Thomas Fogarty, George Bridgman, and Frank Vincent DuMond. Illustrators like J.C. Leyendecker and Al Parker were among Norman Rockwell’s main graphic influences. In 1948, Rockwell wrote Parker a fan letter, praising him for his sense of innovation, freshness, charm, and vitality.

Some of Norman Rockwell's earliest work was done for the youth publication St. Nicholas Magazine. After graduation, he became a staff artist for Boys' Life, the official magazine of the Boy Scouts of America. It was the start of a lifelong association. Rockwell was only 19 when he was promoted to the magazine's art editor. Throughout the decades, he provided Boys' Life with numerous illustrations. Norman Rockwell also designed Boys’ Life’s annual Scout calendars, even during the 1916-1926 period when he didn’t produce artwork for the magazine. Rockwell also 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, where he shared a studio with the cartoonist Vic Forsythe. Forsythe worked for the Saturday Evening Post and introduced Rockwell to the editors. In 1916, Rockwell designed his first cover for the magazine, and he eventually became its house illustrator. 323 more covers followed for nearly five decades, until 1963, when he left to work for Look magazine. Developing a strong visual identity, many of the paintings that established his reputation were done for the Saturday Evening Post. Rockwell's success also led to assignments from other magazines, such as Literary Digest, the Country Gentleman, Leslie's Weekly, Judge, People’s Popular Monthly and Life magazine.

World War II
In 1917, the United States entered the First World War. Norman Rockwell tried to enlist in the U.S. Navy, but was initially rejected for being underweight. After bulking himself up, he was accepted. He was mostly active as an illustrator of military propaganda, and didn't see combat. Three decades later, when the Second World War broke out, Rockwell served his country again by making a series of patriotic paintings. Most were published in the Saturday Evening Post, then distributed as motivational posters. In 1943, Rockwell made 'The Four Freedoms', four thematically-connected paintings, based on U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's speech about four essential human rights: 'Freedom of Speech', 'Freedom of Worship', 'Freedom from Want' and 'Freedom from Fear'. Although Rockwell's drawings are separate paintings, many magazines and posters grouped them together in a comic strip panel format. 'Freedom from Want', depicting a family serving turkey for dinner, has become an iconic American image.

Since many men were drafted during World War II, women took over a lot of their jobs, while simultaneously taking care of their children. In praise of the archetypical, multi-tasking female worker, the lyricists Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb wrote a song titled 'Rosie the Riveter' (1942). The Rosie character became a symbol for all the nameless, but tireless women doing 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 Boy Scouts of America to serve their country with the patriotic illustration, 'We, Too, Have a Job to Do' (1944).

Saying Grace
'Saying Grace', 1951. 

Norman Rockwell is most famous for his gentle depictions of American rural family life. Most are humorous in nature and depict amusing, often adorable scenes. 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 current girlfriend's name to the long list on his arm. 'The Young Lady with the Shiner' (1953) portrays a girl with a black eye, waiting to see the principal. Although she is beaten up, she still sports a big smile on her face, suggesting she won the fight. 'Breaking Home Ties' (1954) shows a father and his son waiting for a train that will take the fancy-dressed young man to university. The contrast between the eager, naïve looking youngster and his sad, down-to-earth father is amusing and touching at the same time.

Norman Rockwell often used real-life locations and models for his paintings. Sometimes he photographed them and copied these pictures on his canvas later on, changing poses and other details to create a better composition. His beautiful craftsmanship and recognizable everyday situations appealed to readers. Later generations also appreciate it for nostalgic reasons. Rockwell's drawings give a romanticized, idyllic view of the United States during the first half of the 20th century. A prime example is 'The Runaway' (1958), showing a police officer and a little boy that ran away from home. The sympathetic policeman buys the boy a treat in a diner, so he can listen to what he has to say and bring him home later. In 'Saying Grace' (1951), a family prays before having dinner in a restaurant. In 'Walking to Church' (1953), parents and their children walk to church through a city street. Rockwell often depicts the United States as a country of freedom, opportunity and promise, where citizens do their best to serve society and get along with each other.

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

Criticism and parodies
During his lifetime, Rockwell was very popular among general audiences, but not always appreciated in serious art circles. He considered himself an illustrator, a profession most critics at the time didn't regard as "fine art". Several critics dismissed his images as corny and sentimental. His style spawned the eponym "Rockwellesque", attributed to scenes of old-fashioned Americana. It was also used by some as a pejorative label for artworks. Novelist Vladimir Nabokov - of 'Lolita' fame - had mixed feelings about Rockwell's talent, saying his "brilliant technique was put to banal use." Starting in 1993 through most of the 1990s, Mad Magazine had a regular back-cover feature by Richard Williams, 'If Norman Rockwell depicted the 90’s', that gave a satirical view on modern life. In a Rockwellesque style, these drawings depicted cynical imagery of abandoned babies, neo-Nazi violence or unsafe schools. 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 the new wave band 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 novel/movie 'The Da Vinci Code', called 'The Norman Rockwell Code'. Just like in the original bestseller by Dan Brown, a professor has to find 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 tend 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. 'Day In the Life of a Little Boy' and 'Day in the Life of a Little Girl' depict what respectively a boy and girl do from the moment they wake up until they go to sleep. Again their activities lack dialogue or panels, but each scene serves as a chronological snapshot.

At one point in his career, during the 1940s, Rockwell considered making a daily comic strip for King Features Syndicate. Elliot Caplin, brother of Al Capp and writer of series like 'The Heart of Juliet Jones', was appointed the scriptwriter. However, Rockwell soon discovered that his way of drawing was far too time-consuming, and the project never came about. In 1948, together with Albert Dorne, he co-founded the Famous Artists School, an institution using art correspondence courses. Rockwell motivated his neighbor John Cullen Murphy to become a cartoonist and acted as his mentor. Murphy later collaborated with Elliot Caplin on the sports comic 'Big Ben Bolt'.

The Four Freedoms by Normal Rockwell
'The Four Freedoms' (1943).

In May 1963, Norman Rockwell left the Saturday Evening Post to become a house illustrator for Look. There was a marked change in Rockwell’s familiar style. Some of his paintings from this period, like the ones that depict space exploration, still have a feel-good atmosphere to them, but others observed America with a more critical eye, depicting poverty and racism. Rockwell later explained that The Saturday Evening Post restricted him too much on a creative level. The editors at the time wanted him to only depict black people in stereotypical subservient roles, such as waiters, bellhops, shoeshiners and maids. One time Rockwell included a black man as a background character and was forced to paint him out. Another time he made a painting celebrating harmony among all races, cultures and faiths, 'The Golden Rule' (1961), which met with a lot of angry reader's letters. Fed up, he joined Look where he felt more supported by his editors and could finally portray black people without censorship.

Rockwell's most iconic painting in this genre is 'The Problem We All Live With' (1964), depicts a small black girl on her way to school, walking past a wall with graffiti and remains of a thrown tomato, escorted on all sides by four adult U.S. marshals. 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 allowed to go to a desegregated school in New Orleans, but needed police protection to get there safely. It took several days before most of the white parents allowed their children to go to the same school. Although Rockwell received a lot of hate mail from racists, at the time, 'The Problem We All Live With' is nowadays recognized as one of his finest and most poignant paintings. Between June and October 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama had the painting put on prominent public display in the White House, and invited the grown-up Ruby Bridges to the Oval Office to see it. 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.

Interestingly enough, Rockwell also changed ideologically. Earlier in his career, he had been conservative and believed in the American Dream. But by the early 1960s, he felt the urge to move along with the changing times and reflect modern-day America. He advocated the African-American civil rights movement, criticized the Vietnam War and expressed support for the hippie subculture. He became a fan of poet Allen Ginsburg and folk singer Bob Dylan and always wanted to paint their portraits, but these plans never came to fruition. 

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

Graphic contributions
In addition to his magazine work, Norman Rockwell was commissioned to paint portraits of U.S. Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. He also illustrated over 40 books, including reprints of Mark Twain's 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn'. Rockwell designed posters for several Hollywood films: the adventure film 'The Adventures of Marco Polo' (1938), the westerns 'Along Came Jones' (1945) and 'Stagecoach' (1966), the comedy 'Cinderfella' (1960) and dramas like 'The Magnificent Ambersons' (1942), 'The Song of Bernadette' (1943) and 'The Razor's Edge' (1946). Norman Rockwell had a cameo in the western 'Stagecoach', playing a poker player. Rockwell 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.

A Rockwell painting appears on the cover of the 1969 album 'The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper'. In 1974, he was approached by David Bowie, who wanted to make a concept album that was a love-hate letter to the United States. In Bowie’s opinion, Norman Rockwell's art was a perfect evocation of idealized America. However, when Rockwell informed Bowie that it would take six months to complete the cover, the musician was unwilling to delay the album’s release date. Bowie eventually used a glamorous photograph for this 1975 album, 'Young Americans', instead.

In 1958, Norman Rockwell was the very first inductee of the Society Illustrators Hall of Fame. A year before his death, U.S. President Gerald Ford honored the artist with a Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977). Posthumously, in 1996 an asteroid was named after Rockwell. 

Final years and death
Norman Rockwell died in 1978 in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, at age 84, of emphysema. His son, Thomas Rockwell (b. 1933), became a children's book author, and his nephew Dick Rockwell (1920-2006) was a comic artist.

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

Legacy and influence
While Norman Rockwell's art was polarizing during his lifetime, he did enjoy more recognition towards the end of his life. In 1969 he lived to see the opening of his own museum. The Norman Rockwell Museum, subtitled "the home for American illustration", in his hometown, Stockbridge, Massachusetts. It houses most of his personal archives and therefore owns the largest collection of Rockwell's original art. After his death, Rockwell's reputation improved. His paintings and illustrations are considered classics and sell for millions at auctions. They are praised for boosting morale and providing uplifiting feelings and messages in general. His support for African-American civil rights during an era when racial tensions divided U.S. society, has been acknowledged as a courageous act. 

Several Hollywood films set in a nostalgic version of 1930s, 1940s or 1950s America took inspiration from Rockwell's paintings. Pictures such as 'Empire Of The Sun' (1987), 'Forrest Gump' (1994) and 'The Iron Giant' (1999). In the album 'Red Soul', from Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido's comic series 'Blacksad',  a tortoise billionaire stands in front of an abstract painting, a nod to Rockwell's canvas 'The Connoisseur' (1962). Alison Bechdel parodied Rockwell's 'The Gossips' on the cover of her graphic novel 'The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For' (2008). Norman Rockwell had a strong influence on artists like Anton Pieck, Reynold Brown, Marten Toonder, Gaston Ebinger, Carl BarksMort Drucker, Robert Crumb, Henk Kuijpers, Frank Cho, Arthur Suydam, Sylvain Escallon, René Follet, Christopher Hart, Marcus Hamilton, Kim Jung-giKaren MatchetteRick Tulka and Bob Englehart. Other celebrity fans of Norman Rockwell's art have been Hollywood directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, novelist John Updike and pop icon Michael Jackson. In 1986, Jackson let artist Paul Bedard mimick the Rockwell painting 'Springtime' (1935), to create a similar image on the welcoming sign of his Neverland Ranch. Some statues of children on his estate were also directly sculpted after images from Rockwell illustrations. On 14 September 1990, the King of Pop additionally posed with the Los Angeles Area Council Boy Scouts of America, directly imitating the Rockwell painting 'Forward America' (1951). Spielberg once owned Rockwell's 1946 painting 'Working on the Statue of Liberty' (1946), before donating it to the White House in 1993. Musician Lana del Rey - whose music and public image often makes use of vintage Americana - named her 2019 album 'Norman Fucking Rockwell!!'.

Books and documentaries about Norman Rockwell
One year after the death of his wife Mary, Norman Rockwell released his autobiography, 'My Adventures as an Illustrator' (Double Day & Company Inc., Garden City, New York, 1960, reprinted in 1995 by Harry N. Abrams), which he wrote together 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. It won a 1973 Academy Award for "Best Short Subject".

Artwork by Norman Rockwell
Illustration for 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn' (1940).

The Norman Rockwell Museum

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