Norman Percevel Rockwell
Born: February 3, 1894 - in his parent’s Upper West Side Manhattan apartment (New York), United States.
Died: November 8, 1978 - in his Stockbridge, Massachusetts home at the age of 84 with an unfinished
painting on his easel.
Norman Rockwell is one of - if not the - most beloved American painter/illustrators of all time. He was most famous for doing a long series of cover paintings/illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post, a gig that lasted 47 years from 1916 to 1963 - a total of 321 covers. He was the second son of businessman Jarvis Waring and Ann Mary (Hill) Rockwell and showed drawing talent early on with his first sketches of warships from the Spanish-American War. While in high school he went Wednesdays and Saturdays to the Chase School of Fine and Applied Art. In 1910, at 16-years old while at the Art Students League he got his first commission: a set of four Christmas cards. From there he went on to illustrating the "Tell me Why Stories," a series of children’s books, and shortly after that he was hired as the art director of "Boys’ Life" magazine (the official publication of the Boy Scouts) and he continued to be their calendar illustrator for 50 years. Riding success from the childrens' books, Rockwell moved to New Rochelle, New York and set up a studio with Saturday Evening Post cartoonist Clyde Forsythe which -
in 1916 - lead to his first painting for the magazine - "Mother's Day Off" - a depiction of a young boy wearing a bowler hat, and pushing a baby carriage past a group of sneering boys in baseball uniforms. It ran on the cover of the May 20, 1916 issue, the same year he married his first wife, teacher Irene O’Connor. That marriage unfortunately ended in 1928. In 1930 he married Mary Barstow, moved to Arlington, Vermont, and they had three sons together: Jarvis, Thomas and Peter. In 1943, the same year that Rockwell's Four Freedoms series was published (a series of illustrations depicting four principles for universal rights from a speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt: Freedom from Want, Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Worship, and Freedom from Fear) a fire in his studio destroyed numerous original paintings, costumes, and props. In 1953 his family moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts as Mary suffered from declining health. Six years after the move, Mary died. In 1961 he married for the third time to Mary L. "Molly" Punderson. Two years later he parted ways with the Post to work for "Look" magazine and his paintings became more politically motivated and no longer about boys and puppies. But those works aren't what he was most famous for.
Norman Rockwell was a very gifted individual when it came to realism in his artwork and his ability to capture human emotion (facial expressions especially) and small moments of Americana, better at it than any of his contemporaries and maybe more than most illustrators since. A great many focused on children - like a boy and his dog going fishing, a young girl and boy at a soda shop dressed up for a formal dance, etc. Most are in rural or small town settings (many theorize that his days in Vermont are what mostly inspired his small town depictions). Even though he captured the pre and post World War II era well in some ways his works are timeless with an ability to be appreciated and loved for generations after they were made. As the tired old saying goes, the more things change, the more things stay the same.
Rockwell's paintings were almost cartoon-like, especially his children, with awkwardly-shaped extremities like arms, legs, or heads, but the irony is they were actually more accurate than one may realize: after all, the kids in his paintings seemed to always be around prepubescence, age 9 to 12, where things do seem to grow out of whack. His ability to capture this period of childhood seems inimitatable: accurate, colorful, lively, somber, and some seemed lively and somber at the same time if such a thing is possible. As timeless as these depictions are, it cannot be ignored that these were from a different era, before television and video games where children relied mainly more on their imagination and would and could spend all day riding their bicycles, playing in creeks and in baseball games, or simply sitting and watching the sun set with their dogs.
Sappy? Sometimes. Kitchy? Maybe. Sentimental? You bet! Take them or leave them, Rockwell's paintings are what they are and make no apologies for it. Hate them if they're not your thing, but you cannot deny his talents and abilities. Nobody argues his ability as a painter. But it seems that some portend that he wasn't a very good artist. Well, what is art? A loaded question, to be sure; ask ten different people and you're very likely to get ten different answers. Before abstract art, impressionism, and photography, art used to be judged on accuracy of depictions. Now there are completely different rules, rules nobody can agree on even. But the most consistent and safest requirement art seems to be that, be it a portrait of a beautiful naked woman or a column of air, the artist should be trying to convey some sort of message and, yes, as the above writeup suggests, demand some type of emotional response from the viewer. Art, whether the artist intends it or not, is always some type of communication. Without that it is nothing. Norman Rockwell was a good artist. I'll agree that people who just paint pretty pictures of trees, mountains, animals, and streams can be superb painters but not "artists," like Bob Ross (although I used to love to watch him paint on PBS). But Rockwell transcended that, he wasn't just painting pretty pictures, he was incredibly adept at capturing emotion, the soul of an era, the spirit of those little, simple moments of life. Yes most of them were "feelgood." So what if the emotional response is usually just a smile, or a grin? That qualifies, doesn't it? Why do some feel that anything that inspires happiness is bad, superfluous, or dismissible? Sadness isn't the only emotion that can run deep. I don't know where that popular opinion came from.
To say that Norman Rockwell's paintings aren't art is elitist and just plain snobbery.