Recently announced, our major gift from the Famous Artists School has been garnering quite a bit of press lately. This Sunday’s New York Times reported on the substantial art and archives donation, made possible by Robert and Magdalen Livesey of Cortina Learning International, which still runs a version of the popular art correspondence course to this day.
The Times reports that during its mid-twentieth century heyday, The Famous Artists School had more than 40,000 students, and offered courses in not only illustration and fine-art painting, but also cartooning, photography, and writing. “True to its name and ads, it indeed counted several famous artists among its founders and faculty: Norman Rockwell, Ben Shahn, Stuart Davis, Will Barnet and the cartoonists Al Capp and Rube Goldberg. And though those artists did little actual teaching or critiquing of student work, they helped develop the curriculum and left behind a trove of their own work and correspondence.” Norman Rockwell Museum’s deputy director/chief curator Stephanie Plunkett explained that the school’s success was born during “the golden age of illustration,” before the advent of commercial photography and traditional art teaching’s shifting focus towards Abstract Expressionism.
Acclaimed illustrator Elwood Smith, whose work has been exhibited over the years at Norman Rockwell Museum, was one of the successful students who took the course: “I did what probably a million kids did: I drew either a cowboy or a pretty girl to try to win a free course… Thinking back on it now, it all seems pretty ironic: I actually took a mail-in course. And look at me now. Who would have thought?”
Including more than 5000 artworks (including original art by Norman Rockwell), The Famous Artists School Archive contains a rich body of materials―from candid archival photographs and promotional and instructional films to complete courses in illustration and cartooning. Last Friday the Museum conducted a new videotaped interview with Famous Artists School/Cortina Learning International owners, Robert and Magdalen Livesey, in their Wilton, Connecticut, offices. The couple, who have led the course since 1981, shared stories about the program and the many talented artists they have worked with over the years.
The archive joins the Norman Rockwell Archive, the most comprehensive collection of the artist’s papers, reference photographs, business correspondence and ephemera, frequently sought by scholars and accessible online. We thank Cortina Learning International for this generous gift that will enable the Museum to further study and share the art of Norman Rockwell and American illustration.