Norman Rockwell was born in New York City in 1894. Growing up in a middle-class family in the Upper West side of Manhattan, Rockwell was never comfortable being a city boy. Although he spent the first years of his life in this urban environment, he thrived whenever he and his brother were allowed to spend some time in the countryside.
From a very early age, Norman knew he wanted to be an illustrator. He was hired as art director of Boy’s Life, the scouts’ official magazine, when he was still in his teens. However, he became nationally known after he started his 47-seven-year collaboration with The Saturday Evening Post, having painted more than 300 illustrations mostly for the cover of that popular magazine.
Rockwell can be considered a family man in the sense that he was married 3 times and had 3 kids from his second wife, but most of his time he was dedicated to his work: 7 days a week, 12 hours a day. There was never much time for his wives and kids. Many say he was a detached and distant husband and father. He also travelled a lot, within the US and all over the world, always carrying on painting during these trips.
Rockwell never considered himself an artist, but an illustrator, specializing in genre scenes, depicting life in small-town America. His illustrations always have an element of humor, but you never fail to sense the pathos injected in the narrative as well. He was one of few popular realists in the world of modernist art of the XX century, where abstract painting ruled.
Before painting his models, he tended to have them photographed by a professional in the specific positions he wanted them to pose. His studio was full of props and costumes available to the models in the sessions. He was very particular about the way he wanted people to pose for him. In New York he used professional models, but when he moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts (from Arlington, Virginia) he started to choose models from the members of his own community: his relatives, friends and neighbors. He always had a photographer with him. He would paint afterwards based on these photos.
The paintings of Rockwell are usually regarded as the best representation of simple, pure and strong American values. As a matter of fact, he helped create these values and the American identity itself, in a land packed with immigrants from the most different cultural backgrounds and without much cohesion among themselves in the early 1900s. His illustrations – although not always depicting scenes of an accompanying written narrative – are one-frame stories in themselves. His art is all about visual storytelling. You can infer a whole narrative just by looking at one of his illustrations. No wonder, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg – two of the most popular storytellers of the last decades of XX century American cinema – are among his greatest admirers and owners of important collections of his works.
Rockwell was the opposite of the common stereotype of a bohemian Greenwich Village artist. His friends say he was polite, funny and meticulous. Some claim he was a neat freak, who would spend hours cleaning his studio and washing his brushes many times a day. He was a bit of a loner as well.
Together with Walt Disney, Rockwell is the most beloved American artist of the twentieth century. Of course, their work had a lot in common: they were both visual storytellers, capable of charming and mesmerizing their viewers with wonderful drawings, colors and movement. The animation in Rockwell’s work was obviously only suggested, as he dealt in illustrations, but they are never static. His brush lent them an inner life and dynamism that completely won over his audience. The triple self-portrait illustration (1960) we see above is an example of the charismatic paintings he could produce.
After working for almost 50 years as the main illustrator for the conservative Saturday Evening Post, Rockwell transitioned to the more liberal Life Magazine, where he could explore themes more relevant to the tumultuous times he was living in: the sixties. There, he could produce illustrations that talked to the main issues of the era: racial segregation, women’s liberation and the spacial program. In this post, we show one his most important works of this period: The Problem We All Live With, from 1964, where he depicts the first Afro-American child – a girl – to go to a desegregated school in New Orleans in 1961, facing all kinds of bullying, mainly from white mothers and teenagers on her way to class. She needed to be escorted by US marshals to be able to get into the school. Her name was Ruby Bridges and Rockwell’s illustration became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement.
On November 8th, 1978, at the age of 84, Norman Rockwell died peacefully in his sleep, due to emphysema. He had already begun to show symptoms of dementia in his final years.
The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, was founded in 1969 and houses the world’s largest collection of his works.
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