Interest has never been higher in an artist who created much-loved images of an idealised America, but who was far more nuanced than perhaps he has ever been given credit for
1. Norman Rockwell is remembered today as a champion of small-town America, but his interest really lay elsewhere — in the private moments we all share but often take for granted. ‘Without thinking too much about it in specific terms, I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed,’ he said.
2. Rockwell’s early life was certainly cosmopolitan. Born in New York in 1894, he studied art in the city until the age of 21 when his family moved to the artists’ colony of New Rochelle, New York. Only in 1939 did he move with his first wife to tiny Arlington, Vermont, encouraging his interest in small-town values.
3. His eye for detail made him a master storyteller. This stemmed partly from his grounding in commercial design. Rockwell had wanted to be an artist from an early age. From the New York School of Art and the National Academy of Design, he went on to the Art Students League, where he studied illustration. He won his first commission — for a set of Christmas cards — before his 16th birthday.
4. Rockwell also had a grounding in the history of European art. Look closely at many of his works and you will find allusions to the Masters. Even the pose of wartime Saturday Evening Post cover girl Rosie the Riveter nods to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel portrayal of the Prophet Isaiah.
5. Much of his work first appeared in magazines. While still in his teens, Rockwell was appointed art director of Boy’s Life, the official magazine of the Boy Scouts of America.
6. Rockwell’s career began in the Golden Age of Illustration. The period from the late 19th century to the 1920s is seen as a highpoint for book and magazine art, and features work by figures such as the artist’s mentor and New Rochelle neighbour J.C. Leyendecker, creator of the New Year’s Baby. Leyendecker’s Ringing in the New Year, circa 1947, featured in our November 2015 online auction America Illustrated.
7. His most productive commercial relationship was with the Saturday Evening Post, for which he painted his first cover in 1916. Over 47 years, he is believed to have provided 321 covers for one of the country’s most popular publications, such as his seasonal special Extra Good Boys and Girls [a study for which was offered in the online America Illustrated auction]. The artist described the magazine as the ‘greatest shop window in America’.
8. Rockwell enjoyed his greatest success during the Thirties and Forties. Through his work with the Post, he became a celebrity in his own right, as demonstrated by depicting himself in Norman Rockwell Visits a Country Editor, 1946, offered in the American Art sale at Christie’s New York in November 2015. ‘We are proud to offer this iconic work of art to the art market,’ said Barbara Cochran, Chair of the Board of Directors of the painting’s owner, the National Press Club Journalism Institute. ‘Norman Rockwell’s charming and realistic portrayal of a country editor and team of journalists, diligently working to share news of the day with their community readers, epitomizes the attributes of American journalism and its contribution to the life of our nation.’ It sold for $11,589,000.
9. Humour was a key element in Rockwell’s work, especially during the war years. ‘During a time of such suffering and loss, Rockwell knew how important it was to keep people’s spirits up,’ explains Laurie Norton Moffatt, Director/CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum.
10. In 1953, Rockwell made his final move to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, a quintessential New England town set in the idyllic Berkshires. (The main image at the top of this story shows Rockwell working in his Stockbridge studio around 1959). He lent works to the Norman Rockwell Museum set up there in 1969. Four years later, he created a trust to preserve his legacy, entrusting his works to the institution. In 1977 he did the same with his studio and its contents.
11. While best known for an optimistic view of human nature, some of Rockwell’s best work emerged in the Fifties when he suffered from bouts of depression. Moffatt notes, ‘His second wife also suffered from depression before she died in 1959, yet some of his most poignant pieces come from this time.’
12. Rockwell was sidelined by critics during the heights of Modernism. He felt least understood during the Abstract Expressionist movement, says Christie’s Head of American art, Elizabeth Beaman, ‘but he had fun with that, creating paintings such as The Connoisseur,’ a work that features the artist’s uncannily accurate take on a Jackson Pollock drip painting.
13. Norman Rockwell painted portraits of five presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Upon presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rockwell in 1977, President Gerald Ford remarked: ‘Artist, illustrator and author, Norman Rockwell has portrayed the American scene with unrivalled freshness and clarity. Insight, optimism and good humour are the hallmarks of his artistic style. His vivid and affectionate portraits of our country and ourselves have become a beloved part of the American tradition.’
14. Rockwell died at his home in 1978. In 2008 he was named the official state artist of Massachusetts.
15. While Rockwell’s work has remained popular, he has become better appreciated through high-profile admirers, among them John Updike. In 2008, the author and sometime art critic told the National Endowment for the Humanities, ‘He was an artist, a real artist in that he went beyond the requirements... I think Rockwell is the stand-out in an age of great illustrators, because he never settled for a formula.’
16. Movie directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are two avid collectors of Rockwell’s work. It is perhaps not surprising that two of the world’s best-known filmmakers should be fans, Moffatt says, as ‘[Rockwell] too was such an accomplished and humane storyteller.’
17. The market for Rockwell’s work has been stronger in the last three years than ever before. ‘Prices realised for his work rebounded much more quickly from the downturn in 2008 than that of other artists,’ Beaman notes, pointing to new buyers being attracted by fresh scholarship, particularly surrounding the blockbuster exhibition Telling Stories, based on Spielberg and Lucas’s collections. ‘Here you have an artist who is depicting America as we all hope it to be and I think the imagery is, in many instances, rather comforting,’ the specialist says.
Main image at top: Norman Rockwell working in his studio, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, circa 1959. Photograph: Underwood Archives/Getty Images. The online sale America Illustrated: Norman Rockwell and his Contemporaries Including Works From the Charles E Sigety Collection ran from 13-24 November 2015.
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