No one artist did more to capture the American experience on canvas than Norman Rockwell. Although his depictions of everyday Americans were beloved by the public, they were often dismissed by the fine art community and critics as works of little art historical importance. Despite this, his career as a painter and illustrator thrived for more than 60 years. Luckily, critics have reconsidered these works since Rockwell's death in 1978 - opinions have changed, exhibitions have been organized, and scholarship has deepened. All of this has cemented his place in art history as an American master and made his works hugely popular on the art market.
This has only reinforced what the public already knew - that Rockwell was a great artist who painted what he saw with honestly, compassion and a healthy dose of humor. Rockwell showed a country what it meant to be a devoted parent, a curious child, a hard worker, a kind neighbor and a good citizen. He showed the country what it meant to be an American.
This February 3rd marked what would have been Norman Rockwell's 125th birthday, and we wanted to take a closer look at the man behind some of America's most iconic imagery. Read on to discover some things that might surprise you about one of this country's most cherished artists.
He found success at an early age.
The struggling artist trope never applied to Rockwell. He began studying art formally as a teenager at the age of 14 at the New York School of Art where he was nicknamed “The Deacon” for his dedicated and serious approach to his studies. Within a year, he became a member of the prestigious Art Students League of New York, whose alumni include the likes of Georgia O'Keeffe, Mark Rothko and Maurice Sendak.
He received his first commission at age 16 for a set of Christmas cards, illustrated a children's book at age 18, and then landed his first Creative Director position at age 19 with Boys' Life, the monthly magazine of the Boy Scouts of America. Thus began a long and successful relationship with the publication, and he produced illustrations for them for 64 years. In 1939, the Boy Scouts of America even awarded Rockwell the Silver Buffalo Award for his contributions, the highest honor given by the organization to adults.
He was incredibly prolific.
Rockwell completed more than 4,000 original artworks in his lifetime, 321 of those being Saturday Evening Post covers - his first being in 1916, and last in 1963. He also created covers for Life magazine, Literary Digest, Look and others, and painted advertisements for companies such Coca-Cola, Crest and Jell-O. His personal motto was even, “Don't worry, just work.”
His mentor was another Saturday Evening Post illustrator.
J.C. Leyendecker was a hugely popular illustrator and commercial artist in the early 20th century, with the 1920s being the height of his career – exactly the time Norman Rockwell was building a name for himself. Leyendecker created the most original covers for the Saturday Evening Post than any other artist (322 to be exact – only one more than Rockwell). He was perhaps best known for his New Year’s Post covers that featured babies ringing in the New Year, as well as his famed Arrow Collar Man. Rockwell deeply admired him and, to a certain extent, emulated his clean style and relatable images of Americana.
Sadly, Leyendecker fell out of style and died in obscurity. He lived a relatively solitary life, and only five people attended his funeral, one of them being Rockwell acting as a pallbearer for his old friend. Similar to Rockwell, Leyendecker's works have been revisited in recent years and are now quite popular with art collectors.
The Navy turned him down... at first.
Any one of Rockwell's self-portraits will show you that he was a rather tall, lanky man. At the start of World War I, he attempted to join the Navy, but was rejected for exactly this reason. He only weighed in at 140 pounds at the time, and at 6' tall, was deemed eight pounds underweight. But, determined to serve, he gained weight overnight on a diet of bananas and doughnuts. He was then allowed to enlist; however, he was assigned the role of military artist rather than a combat position.
He once judged the Miss America pageant.
Miss America 1922, the second Miss America pageant ever held, was judged in part by Norman Rockwell. Interestingly, he judged the “bathing beauty” portion of the pageant along with two other illustrators, Howard Chandler Christy and James Montgomery Flagg. They admitted being a bit perplexed as to how to fairly judge such a contest, but were quoted as “resolved to trust our eyes,” a fitting approach for three accomplished visual artists.
He wrote a children's book.
In 1966, Rockwell wrote a story entitled Willis Was Different about a little wood thrush with a beautiful singing voice. With the help of his schoolteacher wife, Molly, he expanded it so it could be published in McCall's magazine along with original illustrations by Rockwell. It was eventually published in book form and tells the story of a musically gifted but shy bird named Willie living in a remote wood. His talent is discovered, and he is whisked off to Washington D.C. to perform for enormous crowds of people, accompanied by his librarian friend, Miss Polly, on the flute. Willie eventually grows weary of this life and yearns to return to the woods. He and Miss Polly travel back to their tranquil small town where they agree to continue their music as the story says, “Very softly, just for themselves.”
He suffered from depression.
Ironically, the man known for painting such cheery, optimistic scenes struggled with his own mental health. At one point, he relocated his family from Vermont to Massachusetts for both he and his second wife to receive treatment from noted German-American psychologist and psychoanalyst, Erik Erikson. But perhaps we can owe some of his more poignant pieces, especially his work in the 1950s and later that dealt with the serious issue of civil rights and other societal changes, to this duality in the artist.
Modernist critics panned him.
Although Rockwell enjoyed commercial success in his lifetime, the artistic landscape was changing rapidly in the 20th century. Abstract Expressionism hit the scene, and the art world became obsessed with abstraction and conceptual work. Critics deemed Rockwell's art as kitsch and not much else, but Rockwell, ever the humorist, took this in stride. He created a painting called The Connoisseur that pokes fun at modern critics and documents the new tastes in art. In this painting, a critic stands before a Pollock-esque drip painting, considering it carefully. Rockwell temporarily rearranged his studio for this piece in order to paint exactly as Pollock did, placing the canvas on floor and leaning over to drip paint. This is a playful parody on modern art, but also gives us a hint at Rockwell's versatility.
His works are collected by some of America's greatest storytellers.
Norman Rockwell saw himself as a storyteller, so it's no surprise that other visual storytellers would be drawn to his work. America's two most famous directors, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, are avid collectors of Rockwell's works. The Smithsonian Museum of American Art even held a huge exhibition of these directors' collections of Rockwell's work in 2010 entitled Telling Stories that provided insight into how they create a scene. They admire Rockwell for his ability to tell stories of community values, growing up, reluctant heroes and ironic situations in such a concise format.
He was admired by Presidents and First Ladies.
It is fitting that the artist that helped define a nation through his images would have a following of the most influential people in American politics. He painted portraits of five presidents - Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Near the end of his life in 1977, Rockwell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Gerald Ford, the highest civilian award in the United States. In his speech presenting the medal, Ford described Rockwell as, "Artist, illustrator and author, Norman Rockwell has portrayed the American scene with unrivaled freshness and clarity. Insight, optimism and good humor are the hallmarks of his artistic style. His vivid and affectionate portraits of our country and ourselves have become a beloved part of the American tradition." Rockwell would die just one year later, and First Lady Rosalynn Carter attended his funeral in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.