The New England artist is best remembered for his images of an idealised America, yet his work was far more nuanced than is often understood
1. Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) is celebrated 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, Norman Rockwell 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. Rockwell’s 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, and after gaining entry to 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 relationship was with The Saturday Evening Post
Rockwell painted his first cover in 1916 and 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’ and through his work with the Post, Rockwell became a celebrity in his own right.
Rockwell’s The Rookie (Red Sox Locker Room) — painted in 1957 as the 2 March cover for the Post — realised $22,565,000 at Christie’s in May 2014. In November 2015, Norman Rockwell Visits a Country Editor, which was painted for the 25 May 1946 issue of the same publication, sold for $11,589,000.
7. Humour was a key element in Rockwell’s work
Not least 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
Stockbridge was 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. Some of Rockwell’s best work emerged when he suffered from bouts of depression
While best known for an optimistic view of human nature, some of his most poignant pieces come from the 1950s, when he was suffering most. As Moffatt notes, ‘His second wife also suffered from depression before she died in 1959.’
10. Rockwell was sidelined by critics during the heights of Modernism
If Rockwell 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. Rockwell painted portraits of five presidents
Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were all painted by Rockwell. 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
Rockwell passed away at the age 84. In its obituary, The New York Times described Stockbridge as a ‘picturesque village in the Berkshires that could well have been designed by Mr. Rockwell himself — because guileless New Englanders were the best models for the ideas he wanted to portray’. In 2008, Rockwell was named the official state artist of Massachusetts.
13. Rockwell’s high-profile admirers include John Updike
While Rockwell’s work has remained popular, he has become better appreciated through admirers such as the celebrated author and sometime art critic. In 2008, Updike 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. 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
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.