"Without thinking too much about it in specific terms, I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed. My fundamental purpose is to interpret the typical American. I am a story teller."
No other artist has been able to capture the essence of the American experience like Norman Rockwell. Even in the early stages of his career, the aspect that distinguished his work was that it was about the Everyman, providing a chronicle of the simple joys, awkward moments and trying circumstances that give our lives depth. While history was in the making all around him, Rockwell chose to fill his canvases with the small details and nuances of ordinary people in everyday life. He once said himself, “Without thinking too much about it in specific terms, I was showing America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed.” Taken together, his many paintings capture the essence of the American spirit.
Norman Perceval Rockwell was born in 1894 in New York City, and he always knew he wanted to be an artist. Though he drew throughout his childhood, he enrolled in his first art classes at the age of 14. Just two years later, halfway through his sophomore year, he quit high school in order to enter art school full time. Entering the Art Students League, he studied under the great illustrator Thomas Fogarty, whose instruction would have tremendous influence over the young artist.
Rockwell’s talent shined bright early, and he found success at a young age. He completed his first commission for a series of Christmas cards before he was 16. By 17, he illustrated his first children's book, and soon after received his first assignment for Boys' Life magazine. He was on his way.
A Rising Star
By the age of 19, Rockwell was named Art Director for Boys’ Life magazine, and his career was officially launched. He moved to New Rochelle with his family in 1915, where he rented a studio with fellow illustrator Clyde Forsythe. It was in New Rochelle where Rockwell met some of the greatest illustrators of his age - J.C. and Frank Leyendecker and Howard Chandler Christy were among the many residents. In particular, Rockwell came to idolize J.C. Leyendecker – he would refer back to his predecessor’ works time and again in the decades that followed.
It was the golden age for illustrators, when the ultimate prize was considered the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, the nation’s most popular magazine that reached millions of American homes. Rockwell landed his first Post cover at the young age of 22 – over the next few decades, he would complete 321 covers for the legendary magazine.
America’s Greatest Illustrator
His work with the Post had skyrocketed his reputation, and the young artist attained the rank of national celebrity by the age of 30. In 1930, he married his second wife, Mary Barstow, and the family soon after expanded to include three sons. They moved to Arlington in 1939, where Rockwell hoped to find new inspiration in the wake of the Great Depression. Rockwell’s work began to reflect the small-town, rural life that surrounded the family in Arlington. His scenes became much less posed, as he abandoned the Post’s trademark circle in favor of more detailed and humorous scenes. Using his friends and neighbors as models, his illustrations began display the genuine, unmistakable sentimentality that makes Rockwell's art stand out from all others.
“I unconsciously decided that, even if it wasn't an ideal world, it should be so and painted only the ideal aspects of it."
From World War II soldiers to Rockwell’s famed Four Freedoms series, he never strayed from difficult topics, but always painted them with an optimistic air. In his iconic Willie Gillis series of Saturday Evening Post covers, for instance, Rockwell championed "the plight of an inoffensive, ordinary little guy thrown into the chaos of war." The series of 11 total covers followed the story of a young private during World War II. Comic yet still patriotic, it introduced the American wartime public to a young soldier who they came to know and love as if he were their own friend, brother or son. In fact, Willie Gillis was so beloved that many wrote letters to the Post enquiring after his well-being – in spite of the fact he was a creation of Rockwell’s imagination. The final painting in the series shows Willie in a safe, postwar college environment, peacefully studying under the presumed auspices of the G.I. Bill.
Willie Gillis is just one example of the characters that Rockwell brought into people's lives and homes every week through his highly popular magazine covers. Though he ended his career with the Post in 1963, his images endure in the collective consciousness of the American people. Idealistic and innocent, his paintings evoke a longing for a time and place that existed in his rich imagination - and in the hopes and aspirations of the nation.
Rockwell's distinguished career earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977, the highest honor bestowed upon an American civilian. Beloved by generations, his legacy only continues to grow.
Rockwell once stated, "I don't want to paint for the few who can see a canvas in a museum, for I believe that in a democracy art belongs to the people." Rich or poor, young or old, male or female, anyone could personally identify with each painting he composed. Both technically superb and emotionally powerful, Rockwell's paintings capture the resilience and beauty that is the American spirit.