Today is the birthday (1894) of Norman Percevel Rockwell a US illustrator whose works once had broad popular appeal in the United States. Rockwell is most famous for the cover illustrations of everyday life he created for The Saturday Evening Post magazine over nearly five decades. Rockwell’s work was dismissed by serious art critics in his lifetime because they appear overly sweet and tend toward idealistic or sentimentalized portrayals of US life. Vladimir Nabokov said that Rockwell’s brilliant technique was put to “banal” use, and wrote: “Dalí is really Norman Rockwell’s twin brother kidnapped by Gypsies in babyhood.” Actually, Rockwell preferred to be called an illustrator rather than an artist, which makes more sense. I think of him as a caricaturist, and it is worth knowing that Rockwell suffered from lifelong depression and was able to glean joy through his paintings that he could not find in life. In that respect, maybe we can forgive the cartoonish sentimentality.
Rockwell was born in New York City, where he attended Chase Art School at the age of 14. He then went on to the National Academy of Design and finally to the Art Students League. There, he was taught by Thomas Fogarty, George Bridgman, and Frank Vincent DuMond. As a student, Rockwell was given small jobs of minor importance. His first major breakthrough came at age 18 with his first book illustration for Carl H. Claudy’s Tell Me Why: Stories about Mother Nature.
After that, Rockwell was hired as a staff artist for Boys’ Life magazine, the Boy Scouts of America publication. In this role, he received $50 each month for one completed cover and a set of story illustrations. It is said to have been his first paying job as an artist. At 19, he became the art editor for Boys’ Life, published by the Boy Scouts of America. He held the job for three years, during which he painted several covers, beginning with his first published magazine cover, Scout at Ship’s Wheel, which appeared on the Boys’ Life September edition.
Rockwell’s family moved to New Rochelle, New York, when Norman was 21 years old. They shared a studio with the cartoonist Clyde Forsythe, who worked for The Saturday Evening Post. With Forsythe’s help, Rockwell submitted his first successful cover painting to the Post in 1916, Mother’s Day Off (published on May 20). He followed that success with Circus Barker and Strongman (published on June 3), Gramps at the Plate (August 5), Redhead Loves Hatty Perkins (September 16), People in a Theatre Balcony (October 14), and Man Playing Santa (December 9). Rockwell was published eight times on the Post cover within the first year. Ultimately, Rockwell published 323 original covers for The Saturday Evening Post over 47 years. Rockwell’s success on the cover of the Post led to covers for other magazines of the day, most notably the Literary Digest, the Country Gentleman, Leslie’s Weekly, Judge, Peoples Popular Monthly and Life magazine.
During World War I, he tried to enlist into the U.S. Navy but was refused entry because, at 140 pounds (64 kg), he was eight pounds underweight for someone 6 feet (1.8 m) tall. To compensate, he spent one night gorging himself on bananas, liquids and doughnuts, and weighed enough to enlist the next day. He was given the role of a military artist, however, and did not see any action during his tour of duty.
In 1943, during World War II, Rockwell painted the Four Freedoms series, which was completed in seven months and resulted in his losing fifteen pounds. The series was inspired by a speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt, wherein Roosevelt described and articulated Four Freedoms for universal rights. Rockwell then painted Freedom from Want, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, and Freedom from Fear.
The paintings were published in 1943 by The Saturday Evening Post. Rockwell used the Pennell shipbuilding family from Brunswick, Maine as models for two of the paintings, Freedom from Want and A Thankful Mother, and would combine models from photographs and his own vision to create his idealistic paintings. The United States Department of the Treasury later promoted war bonds by exhibiting the originals in sixteen cities. Rockwell considered Freedom of Speech to be the best of the four.
That same year, a fire in his studio destroyed numerous original paintings, costumes, and props. Because the period costumes and props were irreplaceable, the fire split his career into two phases, the second phase depicting modern characters and situations. Rockwell was contacted by writer Elliott Caplin, brother of cartoonist Al Capp, with the suggestion that the three of them should make a daily comic strip together, with Caplin and his brother writing and Rockwell drawing. King Features Syndicate is reported to have promised a $1,000 per week deal, knowing that a Capp-Rockwell collaboration would gain strong public interest. The project was ultimately aborted, however, as it turned out that Rockwell, known for his perfectionism as an artist, could not deliver material so quickly as would be required of him for a daily comic strip.
During the late 1940s, Norman Rockwell spent the winter months as artist-in-residence at Otis College of Art and Design. Students occasionally were models for his Saturday Evening Post covers. In 1949, Rockwell donated an original Post cover, April Fool, to be raffled off in a library fund raiser. In 1959, after his wife Mary died suddenly from a heart attack, Rockwell took time off from his work to grieve. It was during that break that he and his son Thomas produced Rockwell’s autobiography, My Adventures as an Illustrator, which was published in 1960. The Post printed excerpts from this book in eight consecutive issues, the first containing Rockwell’s famous Triple Self-Portrait.
Rockwell’s last painting for the Post was published in 1963, marking the end of a publishing relationship that had included 321 cover paintings. He spent the next 10 years painting for Look magazine, where his work depicted his interests in civil rights, poverty, and space exploration. His last commission for the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) was a calendar illustration entitled The Spirit of 1976, which was completed when Rockwell was 82, concluding a partnership which generated 471 images for periodicals, guidebooks, calendars, and promotional materials. His connection to the BSA spanned 64 years, marking the longest professional association of his career.
Rockwell died on November 8, 1978, of emphysema at age 84 in his Stockbridge, Massachusetts home.
Gorging on bananas and doughnuts aside, we know that Rockwell was fond of oatmeal cookies, and even typed up his favorite recipe.
Norman Rockwell’s Oatmeal Cookies
1 stick butter
1 cup light brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ cup water and 2 eggs well beaten
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup flour, sifted
½ teaspoon baking soda
About 1 cup oatmeal
Chopped nuts (walnuts preferred)
Mix in order and drop on baking sheet. Bake 400° 7 to 8 minutes. Then run under broiler to brown.