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15 things to know about Norman Rockwell

Best remembered for his images of an idealised America, Rockwell’s work was more nuanced than is often understood. Illustrated with works offered at Christie’s

1. Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) is remembered today as a champion of small-town America, but his real interest 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,’ Rockwell said.

2. Rockwell’s early life was 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. Rockwell’s career began in the Golden Age of Illustration. While still in his teens, Rockwell was appointed art director of Boy’s Life, the official magazine of the Boy Scouts of America. The period from the late 19th century to the 1920s is seen as a high point for book and magazine art. 

6. 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. The artist described the magazine as the ‘greatest shop window in America’. Through his work with the Post, Rockwell became a celebrity in his own right.

7. 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.

8. In 1953 Rockwell moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, a quintessential New England town in the idyllic Berkshires. He lent works to the Norman Rockwell Museum, established 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.

9. 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.’

10. Rockwell was sidelined by critics during the heights of Modernism. If he felt least understood during the Abstract Expressionist movement, he had a sense of humour about it, creating paintings such as The Connoisseur — a work that features an uncannily accurate take on a Jackson Pollock drip painting.  

11. 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.’

12. Rockwell died at his home in 1978. In 2008 he was named the official state artist of Massachusetts.

13. 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.’

14. Movie directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are 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, because ‘[Rockwell] too was such an accomplished and humane storyteller.’ 

15. In recent years, Rockwell’s market has been stronger than ever before. Prices for Rockwell’s work rebounded much more quickly from the 2008 downturn than those of other artists. Since then, buyers have been attracted by fresh scholarship, particularly surrounding the blockbuster 2010 exhibition Telling Stories  at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., which drew from the collections of Spielberg and Lucas.