The Art of Norman Rockwell 2017-06-16T16:24:14+00:00

THE ART OF NORMAN ROCKWELL

Norman Rockwell - Country Doctor

Country Doctor,Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post story illustration April 12, 1947.

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THE ART OF NORMAN ROCKWELL | View Collection

Girl Reading the Post - The Art of Norman Rockwell

Girl Reading the Post, Norman Rockwell. 1941. Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, March 1, 1941. From the permanent collection of Norman Rockwell Museum. ©1941 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN

American Magazines and the Power of Published Art | View Collection

Humor and wit were central aspects of Norman Rockwell’s character. From his first Saturday Evening Post cover, Boy with Baby Carriage, in 1916 to his thematic No Swimming paintings to The Gossips, Rockwell filled a societal niche by providing levity during times of great strife. As Pablo Picasso noted, “the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” Through two World Wars, the Great Depression, civil rights struggles, and the wars in Korea and Vietnam, Norman Rockwell’s paintings presented Americans with a window into a more idyllic world.

Though Rockwell is often regarded for paintings that addressed serious issues occurring at the moment of their creation, a great deal of Rockwell’s oeuvre is reflective of his sense of humor and natural playfulness.

Perhaps the works most reflective of this quality are found in Rockwell’s covers for The Saturday Evening Post. From 1916 to 1963, given the latitude to devise his own scenarios for the covers, Rockwell often chose to spotlight amusing situations. Before the Shot depicts a young patient scrutinizing his doctor’s medical license prior to receiving an injection. The knowing glances cast in the Just Married drawing in this gallery leaves little to the imagination. No Swimming (in the adjacent gallery) depicts a prim young lady averting her eyes from a pond filled with disrobed young men.

Cherished for his ability to touch the hearts of people of all ages, Rockwell allowed Americans to smile during difficult times. Cognizant of the barrage of gloomy headlines from newspapers and radio, he chose to aid millions of Americans in a way no one else could. 81 of the 83 Post covers painted by Rockwell during the span of the Great Depression were filled with overt messages of optimism, hope, and humor. With a wink and a nod, Norman Rockwell proved he was the right man in the right place at the right time.

War News - Art of Norman Rockwell

War News, Norman Rockwell. 1945. Unpublished. From the permanent collection of Norman Rockwell Museum. ©1945 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN

World War II and the American Homefront | View Colleciton

Distant from the activities of the war raging in Europe, Norman Rockwell was challenged to record his interpretation of the effects of World War II on servicemen, and on Americans at home. For Rockwell, an unassuming fictional private named Willie Gillis told the story of one man’s army in a series of eleven published (and one unpublished) Saturday Evening Post covers, in which he was depicted doing everything from proudly receiving a care package from home to peeling potatoes and reading the hometown news. Rockwell met his Willie Gillis model, Robert Otis “Bob” Buck, at an Arlington, Vermont square dance. Then fifteen years of age, Buck was exempt from the draft, but anxious to enlist, he eventually began his service in 1943 as a naval aviator in the South Seas. The name Willis Gillis was coined by Rockwell’s wife, Mary Barstow Rockwell, an avid reader who drew inspiration from the story of Wee Gillis, a 1938 book about an orphan boy by Munro Leaf. The first published painting in Rockwell’s Willie Gillis series, this lighthearted portrayal of hungry servicemen marching in step was clearly appreciated by Post readers, who inquired after Willie’s welfare and scrutinized the cover closely enough to observe that Rockwell had not actually placed sufficient postage on the package for sending.  Enlargements of the Willie Gillis covers were distributed by the USO to be posted in USO clubs in the United States and overseas, and in railway-station and bus-terminal lounges.

No Swimming - Art of Norman Rockwell

No Swimming, Norman Rockwell. 1921. Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, June 4, 1921. From the permanent collection of Norman Rockwell Museum. ©1921 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN

Images of Childhood in the U.S.A. | View Collection

The term “Rockwellian” has been used to denote a world replete with harmony in familial relationships, patriotism, optimism, idealism, good-natured fun, and a general feeling that all is well. Adapting everyday situations by accenting and augmenting them to increase their visual and emotional punch, Norman Rockwell didn’t create a fantasy existence, but instead enhanced our own. Critics who have viewed his illustration work with contempt seem unaware that in Rockwell’s world children still disobeyed rules, adolescent girls grappled with social pressures, boys struggled with their evolution into manhood, and, in his most powerful paintings, society confronted issues of race.

Norman Rockwell possessed a distinct ability to create works of art that evoke a strong emotional response. Many of the emotions drawn from the viewer are memories of formative events from their own lives, nostalgia toward a time long gone, or a feeling of Americans collectively united through war-time patriotism. Whether rich or poor, young or old, educated or not, museum visitors often view Rockwell’s paintings with an emotional response or recollection. In certain works, the viewer’s reaction is minimal, noting only the composition or appeal of the characters and the situation of the subjects. In others, parents identify strongly with a mother supervising her children as they stir cake batter, fathers sympathizes with the dad wistfully watching as his daughter transitions to adulthood, children acknowledge scenes of youthful mischief, while others reminisce about their first childhood crush.

The Problem We All Live With - Art of Norman Rockwell

The Problem We All Live With, Norman Rockwell. 1963
From the permanent collection of Norman Rockwell Museum

The American Civil Rights Movement | View Collection

Responsible for helping to shape the perception of American society and culture in the 20th century, Rockwell was at times a documentarian and a mythmaker. By transforming a blank canvas into a portrayal of a young African-American girl courageously enduring a hate-filled crowd on her walk to school, Rockwell depicted Ruby Bridges as a modern day Joan of Arc.  Following his break with The Saturday Evening Post in 1963, Rockwell began to create paintings that allowed him to address more substantive matters.

Now free to openly express his views on current events, Rockwell painted some of his most powerful works, which dealt directly with civil rights issues during a dangerous time when intimidation and murder were tools regularly used to suppress the basic rights of African-Americans.

Rockwell’s first commission for Look sharply defines the new direction his work took after he left The Saturday Evening Post. One of Rockwell’s landmark paintings, The Problem We All Live With tells the story of a young black girl as she bravely walks to her newly desegregated school under the protection of four imposing U.S. Marshals. The illustration was published as a two-page spread with no accompanying text.

Letters to the editor were a mix of praise and criticism. One reader wrote, “Rockwell’s picture is worth a thousand words. . . . I am saving this issue for my children with the hope that by the time they become old enough to comprehend its meaning, the subject matter will have become history.” Other readers objected to Rockwell’s image. The most shocking letter came from a man in New Orleans who described the painting as “just some more vicious, lying propaganda being used for the crime of racial integration by such black journals as Look, Life, etc.”  However, irate opinions did not stop Rockwell from pursuing additional projects dealing with social issues. In 1965, he illustrated the murder of civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and in 1967, he chose children, once again, to illustrate desegregation, this time in our suburbs.

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“A Scout is Helpful,” Norman Rockwell, 1941.
Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. ©NRELC: Niles, IL.

Rockwell and Scouting | View Collection

Norman Rockwell’s long artistic relationship with the Boy Scouts of America began when the organization was still in its infancy. After successfully illustrating the Boy Scout Hikebook in the fall of 1912, Rockwell was retained for the permanent staff of Boys’ Life. The weekly magazine of the Boy Scouts of America had just expanded to national circulation. Six months later, Rockwell was promoted to art editor and he continued to work for Boys’ Life until 1917. In gratitude for this early break and the valuable experience he gained, Rockwell made a lifelong commitment to the Boy Scouts of America, producing their annual calendar illustrations from 1925 to 1976.

Going and Coming - Art of Norman Rockwell

Going and Coming, Norman Rockwell. 1947. Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, August 30, 1947. From the permanent collection of Norman Rockwell Museum. ©1947 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN

Covering The Saturday Evening Post | View Collection

Upon the urging of fellow illustrator and studio partner, Clyde Forsythe, Norman Rockwell walked into the Philadelphia headquarters of The Saturday Evening Post in early 1916 with two paintings he hoped to have published on the cover of the most widely read publication in the United States. Editor George Horace Lorimer was so impressed that he immediately agreed to purchase the works for future publication.

Rockwell noted, “In those days the cover of the Post was the greatest show window in America for an illustrator. If you did a cover for the Post you had arrived. . . . Two million subscribers and then their wives, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, friends. Wow! All looking at my cover.” From his first cover in 1916 to his final illustration in 1963, the Post published 321 covers of original Rockwell paintings.

Echoing popular culture of the era, many of Rockwell’s early Post covers feature children at play and a light-hearted reflection of American family life. His works endeared him to the American public as each week millions of readers eagerly awaited a new Rockwell Post cover. Rockwell’s very first Post cover, Boy with Baby Carriage (celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2016), Puppy Love, and No Swimming are just a few of Rockwell’s most popular works from this period.

Norman Rockwell’s most prodigious work for the Post took place in the 1940s and 1950s. The drama and instability surrounding World War II and the Korean conflict, the excitement of the post-War economic boom, and the greater attention to politics through mass media all provided inspiration to Rockwell as he painted his vision of America to readers of the Post. By the end of the Norman Rockwell era of The Saturday Evening Post in the early 1960s, the number of weekly readers increased to 6 million.

During this period, Rockwell cemented his image as America’s painter through iconic covers such as Gossips, Roadblock, Before the Shot, and The Runaway. The Golden Rule painting, one of Rockwell’s final Post covers, portends his eventual move from The Saturday Evening Post to Look magazine.

Rockwell’s decision to separate from the Post was due to several factors, including the departure of longtime Saturday Evening Post editor and friend of Rockwell, Ben Hibbs; an increase in the demand of photography for magazine covers; and the artistic freedom that Look magazine afforded to Rockwell, which enabled him to create more socially conscious paintings which reflected America’s rapidly changing society.

The Lineman - Art of Norman Rockwell

The Lineman, Norman Rockwell. 1948. Advertisement for American Telephone and Telegraph Company. From the permanent collection of Norman Rockwell Museum, gift of Verizon Communications, Inc. Licensed by Norman Rockwell Licensing, Niles, IL.

Norman Rockwell’s Advertisements | View Collection

Though best-known for the 323 Saturday Evening Post covers depicting his paintings, Norman Rockwell was consistently in high demand from companies wishing to capitalize on his beloved images of everyday Americans. Beginning with a commercial illustration for Heinz in the 1914 edition of the “Boy Scout Handbook” to his final commissioned artwork for Lancaster Brand Turkeys in 1976, Rockwell assisted several dozen companies in improving their brand and increasing their sales.

Some of Rockwell’s clients included Fisk Tires, Interwoven Socks, Edison Mazda, Elgin Watches, Jell-O, Parker Pen, Campbell’s Tomato Juice, Arrow Shirts, Listerine, Mass Mutual, Skippy Peanut Butter, Crest, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Plymouth, Ford, General Motors, Mobil, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi, in addition to work for the United States Office of War Information during World War II. His longest-held client was the Boy Scouts of America, for whom he illustrated their annual calendar for over 50 years.

Continuing to show the strength of Rockwell’s influence on American culture, during Thanksgiving 2015 Butterball reproduced Rockwell’s Freedom From Want painting on packaging for its turkeys.

The Gossips study - Art of Norman Rockwell

The Gossips (study)

Norman Rockwell’s Artistic Process | View Sample Collection

A natural storyteller, Norman Rockwell envisioned his scenarios down to the smallest detail, yet at the easel he found it difficult to paint purely from his imagination. In his first decades as an illustrator, he could not paint without studio models in continual view as he worked, explaining that it had “never been natural” for him to “deviate from the facts” of the subject before him.

Rockwell turned to photography as an efficient, accurate, and liberating means to satisfy his literalism. By photographing his props wherever he found them he no longer had to assemble together the disparate objects his narratives required. By photographing far-flung settings he was able to introduce true-to-life backgrounds. And by freeing him from the drawbacks of live models, photography dramatically expanded his vocabulary of available postures and possible expressions. “Now anybody could pose for me,” Rockwell said, and he took full advantage of the opportunity. Rockwell’s trademark animated faces became possible because they could first be captured on film.

Norman Rockwell adeptly coaxed his characteristic expressions from a cast of amateur performers with the skill of a seasoned filmmaker. The artist himself deemed this directorial ability “an art in itself,” underscoring the importance of a talent that was central to his storytelling process. After choosing the best photographs to tell his story, Norman Rockwell began the process of translating these images into his finished painting. First, a detailed charcoal drawing was required with which he developed and refined his narrative and worked out compositional details. Rockwell began by placing his initial sketch in the Balopticon, which projected onto roughened architect’s paper on a vertical easel. Positioning it closer or farther away to achieve the desired size, he drew lightly to outline his design.

Beginning with the most important subjects, Rockwell placed his photographs one by one in the Balopticon. Maneuvering each element into position until it fit the outlined sketch, he lightly traced the projected photographs, erasing the first sketched figures as he worked. Rockwell sometimes cut out and used only the specific details that interested him and discarded the remainder of the photographic image as he fine-tuned his composition. If the result didn’t please him Rockwell rubbed out or replaced the detail, rubber cementing in a new paper section. With the complete composition roughed in, he started again at the beginning, tracing each photographic element in greater detail and making notations on lighting and tonality.

To make the leap to canvas Rockwell transferred the outlines of his charcoal drawing to primed canvas using transfer paper. Alternately, Rockwell had his charcoal drawing photographed, projected onto canvas, and traced. In a separate step, Rockwell produced a new version – in color and to the size of the intended reproduction – with which he planned the palette of the final painting. Sometimes created early in his creative process, Rockwell’s color studies often possess a loose, painterly vitality quite unlike the finished, more detailed illustration.

After transferring his charcoal study to canvas and sealing it with thinned shellac, Norman Rockwell began the demanding process of laying down paint. Surrounded by all of the reference materials he had collected for the work at hand, his photographs played a final role as he tacked snippets cut from them to his easel as he worked.

Rockwell endured long, often stressful days at his easel as he completed his creative process. Striving to get everything exactly right, he was known to repeatedly paint over entire sections of a composition, or scrape the paint down to the canvas and start over. Sometimes, even finished works could be discarded. He routinely asked anyone who came into his studio to critique a work in progress as a way to test his artistic choices and gauge the clarity of his narrative.