Norman Percevel Rockwell (3 February 1894, New York City, New York — 8 November 1978, Stockbridge, Massachusetts) is a legendary painter of XX century, whose works were adored by millions of Americans. His name became a synonym for the most popular magazine in America – “The Saturday Evening Post”, he worked with it for nearly 50 years. Many generations of children grew up inspired by his art. A well-known film director, George Lucas, recalled how he ran as fast as he could from school when a new issue of the magazine came out: “All that the artist depicted was a part of my life.” Norman was a wonderful storyteller, and his heroes had almost a magical impact on children.
George Lucas, a longtime fan and collector of Rockwell’s paintings, donated 500 thousand dollars to create new educational programs at the Norman Rockwell Museum (Stockbridge, Massachusetts). The director fulfilled his dream to present his paintings to as many people as possible; they tell about human values: love, kindness, devotion... (1, 2, 3). Steven Spielberg, who was also a passionate collector of paintings by Rockwell, together with Lucas organized an exhibition of the works from their collections.
"I love to tell stories through my paintings"
Norman Rockwell worked in an individual style, he portrayed ordinary Americans with extraordinary warmth and sympathy, flavouring artworks with a good pinch of humour (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). The viewers responded him in kind, recognizing themselves in the heroes from the paintings, they wrote thousands of thank-you notes to the painter. It is hardly possible that there was an artist as popular as Norman Rockwell, for success followed him from the first his work till the last one. Despite his immense success, he was incredibly modest. Yes, Norman led a simple style of life. He was born in New York, lived in small towns for many years, travelled almost around the whole world, but he was not a simple man. The author of Norman’s biography “Norman Rockwell: A Life” Laura Claridge said, that she had seen him an incredibly talented artist, well-educated, high-minded man with strong beliefs, but who was prone to depressions. He was a master of humour and at the same time, he could precisely imitate the dramatic moment, reaching a stage effect.
Norman Rockwell was born in 1894 to a family unrelated to art: his father was a manager of Philadelphia textile firm, and mother was a housewife. Norman’s passion for drawing appeared in early childhood. When the boy was seven years old, the father read novels by Charles Dickens every evening, and Norman Rockwell painted his gloomy heroes in his imagination. Later in his autobiography he would write: “Maybe as I grew up and found the world wasn’t the perfectly pleasant place I had thought it to be, I unconsciously decided that, even if it wasn’t an ideal world, it should be and painted only the ideal aspects of it — pictures in which there were no drunken slatterns or self-centered mothers, on the contrary, there were only Foxy Grandpas who played football with the kids, and boys fished from logs and got up circuses in the backyard”.
A lanky boy always compared his thin figure with the athletic figure of his brother Jarvis. Norman Rockwell was not fond of sports, he attended art school instead and drew right along.
Some critics noted that in childhood, art was a way of self-realization for Norman. At the age of 14, he finally decided to become an illustrator and left school. He enrolled in the New York Art School, studied briefly at the National Academy of Design, and even less in the Art Students League. His education ended there and the rapid illustrator’s career began. At the age of 19, Norman Rockwell was the editor-in-chief of the popular Scout magazine “Boy’s Life”, and after three years he opened his own studio in La Rochelle, in the suburbs of New York. He shared the studio with the cartoonist Clyde Forsythe, who worked for the magazine “The Saturday Evening Post”. With Forsythe's help, Norman's innermost wish was fulfilled, he received an order for the cover of the “Post”, which was called “mirror of America”. He portrayed American being for 47 years, and has created 322 cover paintings for the magazine.
In 1930, Norman divorced his first wife Irene O’Connor. His old mate invited him to visit Los Angeles in order to dispel the gloomy mood of his friend. Having visited Hollywood, he immediately planned to create a “glamorous” illustration from the cinema world. Paramount Pictures responded positively to this idea and suggested to draw Gary Cooper as a cowboy who starred in “The Virginian”.
Watching the Hollywood routine “in the wings”, he chose plots for his art: stars, who got tired of their popularity and frustrated girls who came for casting with the hope of becoming an actress, but forced to engage in a non-romantic profession.
Luck was on the two girls’ side, the models of Norman. Having appeared on the “Post” cover, they got a contract with the Hollywood film studio. Norman was lucky in Los Angeles too, he met his second wife, a school teacher Mary Barstow. Three sons were born in this marriage.
How Rockwell Worked
With incredible ability for work, Norman Rockwell created 4,000 paintings, and said, “I don’t have enough time to paint everything I want”. He was a gifted narrator, and he seldom made scenes from his imagination in his paintings. He had his own method of work, the director’s method! Norman confessed that the most difficult thing was to choose an idea that would be interesting for both a housewife and politician. When the plot was found, Norman Rockwell began his movement to search for models, more often they were his family members, friends or neighbours. Norman carefully thought over costumes and scenery, then searched for poses of his images for a long time. When he was satisfied with all the details of the future piece of art, he began to make the final composition. Since the 1930s, Norman Rockwell hired photographers to speed up the process.
The facts say that he could use up to hundred photos for one artwork, linking and thinking over each smallest detail of the composition. His early works resemble the scenes from silent cinema. By the 1940s, the compositions became more complex and interesting, he made story artworks with complex scenarios played out.
During World War II, the artist decided to tell in his works what the American soldiers were fighting for and created his most famous series The Four Freedoms. “These pictures mean more to me than anything I've done before,” Rockwell said. He made the paintings Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. These human rights had to become common throughout the world, they were expressed in Roosevelt's address in 1941 and inspired him to work. The Four Freedoms exhibition gallery travelled all over America, and raised 132 million dollars, which were then transferred to military needs. Norman painted another military series of paintings about a soldier Willie Gillis, portraying his living before and after the war.
The Third Marriage and Later Art
Because of his wife’s illness in 1953, the Rockwells had to move to Stockbridge. The last ten years Mary fell into depression and has been treated in a mental ward. She died in 1959. Norman's friends remember his confusion about it. The artist set out to write his own biography (“My Adventures as an Illustrator”). On the book cover, he placed the most famous self-portrait.
Two years later, Norman Rockwell remarried another teacher, actually, a pensioner, Mollie Punderson. Every day the inhabitants of the small town watched the happy family riding bicycles.
In the 1960s, Norman collaborated with the “Look” magazine and became more interested in civil rights of America (New Kids in the Neighborhood, Golden Rule). He had his own political preferences. He respected and valued Eisenhower’s policy very much. One day Eisenhower invited him for an official dinner in Washington. He was very anxious about the meeting, and took a sedative, in fear of making a disadvantageous impression on the president. However, the meeting was successful. In 1974, Rockwell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian award of the United States.
The artist lived for 84 years and he confessed at the end of his earthly way, “The secret to so many artists living so long is that every painting is a new adventure. So, you see, they're always looking ahead to something new and exciting. The secret is not to look back.”