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

Normal Rockwell was an 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, and was characterized by its strong sense of sentimentality and morality. Over a course of 47 years his cover illustrations appeared in the Saturday Evening Post and he furthermore produced a large body of work for the Boy Scouts of America. His work has influenced many painters, illustrators, cartoonists and even film directors trying to evoke a nostalgic, cosy and charming  atmosphere. 

Cover by Norman RockwellCover by Norman Rockwell

Early life and career
Norman Percevel Rockwell was born in 1894 in New York City as a direct descendant of one of the original settlers of Windsor, Connecticut. He went to Chase Art School at the age of 14, and later also attended the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League, where his teachers were Thomas Fogarty, George Bridgman, and Frank Vincent DuMond. Among Rockwell's graphic influences were J.C. Leyendecker and Al Parker, the latter whom he once wrote a fan letter. Rockwell got his first assignments from youth publications like St. Nicholas Magazine. He also began his long association with the Boy Scouts of America during the early stages of his career. He served as staff artist for the organization's magazine Boy's Life for a couple of years, and even became its art editor at age 19. He continued to contribute artworks to the magazine, and also to the annual Boy Scouts calendars, during his entire career. He additionally made drawings for the monthly magazine of the American Red Cross.

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

Saturday Evening Post
At the age of 21, Rockwell settled in New Rochelle, New York, where he shared a studio with cartoonist Vic Forsythe. Forsythe introduced him to the Saturday Evening Post, to which he contributed his first cover in 1916. He became vital for the magazine's look-and-feel, as he designed over 300 original covers the next decades, until 1963. His success with the Post also led to assignments from other magazines, such as Literary Digest, the Country Gentleman, Leslie's Weekly, Judge, Peoples Popular Monthly and Life magazine. His sentimental and nostalgic illustrations of American rural family life continue to be reproduced as posters and prints, such as his masterpieces 'Saying Grace' (from Thanksgiving, 1951), 'Walking to Church' (1953) and 'Breaking Home Ties' (1954).

Saying Grace
'Saying Grace'.

Some of his covers have sequential narratives, like 'The Gossips' from 1948 and the 1952 companion pieces 'Day in the Life of a Little Boy' and 'Day in the Life of a Little Girl'. There was even an effort to develop a daily comic strip with Elliot Caplin for King Features Syndicate, but Rockwell's way of working proved too time-consuming for such a project. With Albert Dorne, he was also among the co-founders of the Famous Artists School, an institution for art correspondence courses, in 1948. Rockwell furthermore motivated his neighbour John Cullen Murphy to become a cartoonist and acted as his mentor. 

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

Artistic career
Rockwell served a military artist during World War II, and made a couple of iconic works during this period. His 1943 set 'The Four Freedoms' depicts the four essential human rights that should be universally protected: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear. For the Post's cover for Memorial Day 1943, he used a rowdy variation of 'Rosie the Riveter', a cultural icon that represented the American women who worked in factories and shipyards during the war. Another famous piece was 'We, Too, Have a Job to Do' (1944), that was made to encourage Scouts to participate in the war effort.

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

In 1963, Rockwell left the Saturday Evening Post, and began an association with Look magazine, that lasted until 1973. Where his work for the Post can be described as "feel-good", Rockwell started using more serious themes in his work for Look, such as civil rights and poverty, as well as space exploration. His most notable work for Look is probably 'The Problem We All Live With' (1963), a painting of six year-old Ruby Bridges being escorted into a New Orleans school in 1960. This iconic moment in America's troubled civil rights history was on prominent public display in The White House with the support of President Barack Obama in 2011.

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

Later work and death
In addition to his magazine work, Rockwell was commissioned to make portrait paintings, for instance for the Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. He also illustrated more than forty books, including 'Tom Sawyer' and 'Huckleberry Finn', and also designed advertisements (most notably for Coca Cola), movie posters, sheet music, stamps and murals. In 1960, he released his autobiography, 'My Adventures as an Illustrator', that he had made with son Thomas, following the death of his wife Mary in 1959. Norman Rockwell died of emphysema at the age of 84 in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. 

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

In 1977, Rockwell received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the USA's highest civilian honor. The Norman Rockwell Museum was opened in his hometown Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in 1969. This museum has the largest collection of original Rockwell art, and also houses the Normal Rockwell Archives. In 1996 an asteroid was named after him.

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

Legacy and influence
During his lifetime Norman Rockwell earned praise and respect from many people. At the same time he wasn't appreciated in serious art circles. Critics felt his work was corny, square, conventional, too mainstream 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 the artist'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. 

Nevertheless Norman Rockwell remains popular and well-known to this day. His socially conscious artworks are appreciated by even his staunchest critics. Among his admirers are and were celebrities like Anton Pieck, Reynold BrownMarten ToonderGaston EbingerMort DruckerRobert Crumb, Henk Kuijpers, Michael Jackson, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Frank Cho, Lana del Rey, Arthur Suydam, Sylvain EscallonRené FolletChristopher Hart and Rick Tulka.

Artwork by Norman Rockwell

The Norman Rockwell Museum

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


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