Charles Dickens wrote of Christmas, "Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveler, thousands of miles away, back to his own fire-side and his quiet home!" (The Pickwick Papers, 1836) Norman Rockwell's art is much the same, capturing nostalgic moments that strike pleasant remembrances and recall a bygone era in America's history. The cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post December 16, 1939 issue, Extra Good Boys and Girls is an endearing painting that captures the spirit of Christmas and the allure of Santa in the American psyche.
As America's preeminent illustrator, Norman Rockwell was as ubiquitous to the American public as the images he created. Over the course of seven decades the artist produced more than 800 magazine covers and advertisements for over 150 companies. These works depicted a sweeping range of topics during a century of extensive technological and social change, making Rockwell one of the most successful mass communicators of the century and allowing him to forge a sense of national identity through his art. "His images convey our human shortcomings as well as our national ideals of freedom, democracy, equality, tolerance and common decency in ways that nobody could understand. He has become an American institution. Steven Spielberg recently said, 'Aside from being an astonishingly good storyteller, Rockwell spoke volumes about a certain kind of American morality.' It is a morality based on popular values and patriotism, a morality that yearns above all for goodness to trump evil." (L.N. Moffat, Norman Rockwell: A Definitive Catalogue, vol. I, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, 1986, p. 26)
Most memorable among Rockwell's achievements is his long-standing relationship with The Saturday Evening Post, a weekly periodical read by millions. Over the course of more than fifty years, the artist illustrated 322 covers for the magazine including Extra Good Boys and Girls. Rockwell's covers sold more magazines than any other artist's and, in this way, his art became familiar to and beloved by the American public. His art was emblematic of both the great events and the mundane experiences of the first three-quarters of the twentieth century. "On a frequent and regular basis, millions of Americans brought Rockwell's art into their homes-viewing his Post covers while seated in their favorite chairs, surrounded by personal belongings in the company of their families." (M.H. Hennessey and A. Knutson, Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, exhibition catalogue, Atlanta, Georgia, 1999, p. 143)
And yet, despite the wide-range of Rockwell's pictorial triumphs, ever since his first paying commission--received from Mrs. Arnold Constable in 1911 to produce Christmas cards--Rockwell has been inextricably linked to Christmas in America. He produced numerous covers, illustrations and advertisements for the holiday (figs. 1,2,3), painted Christmas cards for Hallmark in 1948 and 1979 (fig. 4) and designed holiday calendars for Brown and Bigelow. "So identified with this one season did Rockwell become that a number of his canvases which contain no explicit references whatever to Christmas-various generic winter scenes, for example, and even some scenes that lack any seasonal signature-are nevertheless thought of by enough people as being 'typical' Rockwell Christmas paintings so that they continue to be reproduced at Yuletide year after year." (J. Kirk, Christmas with Norman Rockwell, North Dighton, Massachusetts, 1990, p. 8)
Born in New York City on February 3, 1894 to Jarvis Waring Rockwell, an office manager at the textile firm of George Wood, Sons and Company, and Nancy Hill Rockwell, Norman showed artistic talent from a young age. He grew-up sketching as his father read Dickens and making chalk drawings on the sidewalk to entertain his friends. While his innate artistic gift came from both his grandfather on his mother's side, Howard Hill, who had been an aspiring artist, and his father, who often sketched around the house, it was his passion and focus that allowed for the young artist's early success. Despite the family's move to Marmaroneck, New York, in 1903, Rockwell attended the Chase School of Applied and Fine Art in his early teens, regularly taking the trolley into New York City for his twice weekly classes. When, a few years later, at the age of sixteen, he was accepted into the National Academy he dropped out of high school to pursue art full-time. He later studied with George Bridgman and noted illustrator Thomas Fogarty at the famed Art Students League, which was founded by the famous illustrator Howard Pyle, whom Rockwell greatly admired and whose success the young artist aspired to achieve.
At the age of eighteen, in 1912, Rockwell had his own studio in New York City and was supporting himself doing advertising work for local companies. His first published works were for C.H. Claudy's Tell-Me-Why Stories about Mother Nature, commissioned by Condé Nast, and Gabrielle Jackson's Maid of Middies' Haven . His entrée into the magazine world, and first salaried position, was as Art Editor at Boy's Life. In this position he illustrated covers and stories as well as accepted and rejected illustration submissions. At the same time, he also worked freelance, publishing covers and illustrations in other magazine and illustrating books. During the late 1910s, illustration jobs were becoming increasingly competitive as magazines were incorporating more photographic images into their layout and rising costs in book publishing were limiting opportunities for illustrators in that field. It is probably due only to his talent and drive that Rockwell was largely unaffected by this trend. "At an age when most young men are leaving college, Norman already ranked as one of America's leading illustrators." (A.L. Guptill. Norman Rockwell: Illustrator, New York, 1946, p. 72)
In 1915 he moved his studio to New Rochelle, just outside of New York, also the home of famed illustrator J.C. Leyendecker, and a year later, on May 20, 1916 his first painting, Boy with Carriage, appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post (fig. 5). No small feat, this monumental achievement took a good deal of courage on Rockwell's part. "Rockwell was twenty-two when he walked into the Saturday Evening Post offices in Philadelphia. The Post was 188 years old. It had witnessed the star treks of contributors like Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Mark Twain and Bret Harte in its pages, and was not used to being impressed by anybody...But the Post was impressed and has been ever since." (S. Flythe, Jr., Norman Rockwell and The Saturday Evening Post, vol. I, New York, 1976, p. II) By the time Rockwell left the Post's offices later that afternoon, he had sold two pictures and had a commission to paint three more.
This was a windfall for the artist leading to commissions from a variety of magazines including Collier's, Literary Digest and Life. The momentum of Rockwell's success was further buoyed by the invention of the four-color printing process in the 1920s, which greatly reduced production costs, resulting in full-page color illustrations becoming features that accompanied articles and stories in popular magazines such as McCalls and The Saturday Evening Post. "By 1938, Rockwell's illustrations-on calendars, in books and magazines, tacked up on bedroom walls, often framed-were a familiar presence in the American home and had been for a long time." (S. Murray, Norman Rockwell At Home in Vermont: The Arlington Years, 1939-53, Bennington, Vermont, 1997, p. 5) Although at times filled with self doubt, Rockwell was innately aware of the public's interest, wants and needs and ceaselessly delivered highly marketable works with incredible proficiency and alacrity.
George Horace Lorimer, the Post's editor, with whom Rockwell worked often, was more consciously aware of the public's interests and maintained exacting standards for determining which paintings would become cover illustrations. As the covers were the magazine's single greatest selling tool, Lorimer was emphatic that they have maximum visual impact. Rockwell described his meetings with the editor: "He never fidgeted over a decision or told me to leave the cover so that he could decide later whether or not to accept it. The first glance, its first impact was his criterion. 'If it doesn't strike me immediately,' he used to say, 'I don't want it. And neither does the public. They won't spend an hour figuring it out. It's got to hit them.'" (Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, p. 145) This unyielding emphasis on the effect of Rockwell's illustrations on the viewer ensured that his pictures for the Post were the best of his oeuvre.
Even more significant than the standard Post cover, were the coveted holiday covers (figs. 6,7). Of the utmost importance, these seasonal specials were reserved for the most accomplished artists. That Rockwell's illustrations were featured so often during the holidays is a testament to his position as America's pre-eminent illustrator. The seasoned professional advised aspiring illustrators that, "The would-be cover artist, when planning to submit ideas to such a publication as the Post, would do well to forget for the time being such special covers as those for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Fourth of July. For these are assigned well ahead of times to established artists." (as quoted in Norman Rockwell: Illustrator, New York, 1946, p. 69)
Extra Good Boys and Girls manifests why "Norman Rockwell is generally credited with the invention of the modern American Christmas and the tender sentiments attached to it." (Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, p. 155) The largely secular vision of Christmas in 1930s America was almost entirely a result of mass media and the character of Santa Claus satisfied a nation that was becoming increasingly focused on consumerism. Rockwell produced numerous holiday covers to satisfy the public's demand and in so doing, helped to construct the modern American concept of Christmas. During this period the American public was so enamored with and accustomed to receiving Rockwell's warm and jovial holiday portrayals that "In many American homes Christmas and Thanksgiving weren't quite official until the Post arrived with a Norman Rockwell holiday cover." (S. Marker, Norman Rockwell, North Dighton, Massachusetts, 2004, p. 12)
Yet, from his first Christmas cover for the Post in 1916 until his final one in 1956, Rockwell refused to entirely cede to the current commercialism of the holiday and many of his holiday illustrations recall an earlier era. "Rockwell's Santa Clauses seem tinged with nostalgia or regret for vanished Christmases once upon a time." (Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, p. 160) This ability to bow to contemporary demands, while speaking to America's past, accounts for the continuing appeal of works such as Extra Good Boys and Girls and allows them to transcend the boundaries of mere illustration art. The present work both chronicles a period in America's social history and acts as a portal to an earlier time in the nation's remembrance.
The present painting depicts a pensive St. Nick, clad in his signature red, reviewing his book of "Extra Good Boys & Girls" and planning his Christmas Eve route. A spin on the traditional gift laden Santa shimmying down a chimney or in his reindeer drawn sleigh, this work humanizes the holiday icon and recalls the earlier works such as Santa (fig. 8), the December 4, 1920 Post cover which depicts Santa going over his "Expense" book and Christmas (fig. 9), the December 4, 1926 Post cover, which depicts Santa with his "Good Boys" book eyeing a globe.
In Extra Good Boys and Girls Santa is portrayed in profile sitting on a ladder from his workshop and is customarily jolly with a ruddy complexion and large belly. He is methodically using the red pushpin-flags, which he holds in a white box on his lap, to attach a red ribbon to the map designating his path with destinations across the Pacific and throughout the Americas. The halo above his head denotes his beneficent character as does the ink quill tucked behind his ear, an angelic symbol. Rockwell neglects no detail to conjure the holiday, even signing his name in red and green.
The highly detailed map that occupies the background of the picture alludes to the importance and spread of Christmas throughout the world and reminisces to the holiday's power to bring together friends, families and people from diverse backgrounds. In alluding to the history and nostalgically recalling the true importance of the holiday, Rockwell's image reminds the viewer of something far more satisfying than receiving gifts, exemplifying Rockwell's belief that great illustrations, "went beyond merely suggesting setting and picturing characters. They gave a tone, a different dimension to the story they accompanied...[they] had a life of their own, became considered in their own right as pictures. The illustrations...suggest the world of the stories they accompany but they also suggest a great deal more: a world of imagination, of fantasy and magic." (as quoted in, L.N. Moffatt, Norman Rockwell: A Definitive Catalogue, vol. I, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, 1986, p. xi)
In discussing his career, Rockwell commented, "I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed. And perhaps, therefore, this is one function of the illustrator. He can show what has become so familiar that it is no longer noticed. The illustrator thus becomes a chronicler of his time." (as quoted in Norman Rockwell: A Definitive Catalogu, p. xii) With Extra Good Boys and Girls Rockwell succeeds not only in chronicling his time, but also in capturing the nostalgia associated with Christmas. This masterwork brought the holidays home to houses across America and continues to do so today.