Norman Rockwell
Biography of Graphic Artist Noted for Nostalgic Posters and Illustrations.

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Norman Rockwell (1894-1978)


Art Students League
First Illustrations for Saturday Evening Post
Financial Success
Leaves Saturday Evening Post
Portraiture and Popular Culture
Rockwellian Style of Illustration



A full-time professional illustrator by the age of 18, the American painter and graphic artist Norman Rockwell produced some of the most famous pictorial images of everyday American life in the 20th century. He became a household name in American art, creating illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post magazine for over 40 years. His best known pictures include the Willie Gillis series, Rosie the Riveter and Saying Grace. Rockwell produced over 4,000 original artworks in his life, many of which have become valuable collector items. He also produced two best-selling books: Norman Rockwell, Illustrator (1946), and Norman Rockwell Artist and Illustrator (1970). Rather like his earlier counterpart Winslow Homer (1836-1910), Rockwell has often been dismissed as corny by his critics (many art books still carry no reference to his aesthetics or creative accomplishments), but his down to earth realism portrayed an important, if nostalgic, view of American life. In 2006, one of his paintings sold for $15.4 million at Sotheby's New York.

For biographies of some of the
best modern US painters, see:
Edward Hopper (1882-1967)
Noted for urban genre-paintings.
Grant Wood (1892-1942)
American Regionalist painter.
Ansel Adams (1902-84)
Wilderness photographer.
Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009)
Realist tempera painter.
Andy Warhol (1928-87)
Pop-Artist noted for screenprints.
Jasper Johns (b.1930)
Painter, sculptor, lithographer.
Richard Estes (b.1932)
Superrealist painter, urban scenes.
Chuck Close (b.1940)
Leader of photorealism.

For the best works, see:
Greatest Modern Paintings.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest portraitists
see: Best Portrait Artists.
For the greatest genre-painting, see:
Best Genre Painters.

Art Students League

Rockwell was born in New York in 1894. Displaying an early interest and talent for drawing, Rockwell transferred to the Chase Art School at the age of 14. Two years later, he moved to the National Academy of Design and finally to the famous Art Students League, where some of the biggest names in 20th century art studied, including Winslow Homer, Georgia O'Keeffe, Man Ray, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko, Louise Nevelson, Robert Rauschenberg, Reginald Marsh, Cy Twombly, Romare Bearden, Donald Judd and Roy Lichtenstein. One of the teachers at the time of Rockwell's attendance was the Ashcan school painter George Bellows (1882-1925). The League is run by artists for artists, it never issues certificates or degrees - instead its aim is to encourage the pursuit of art, and the understanding of artistic thinking and processes. Rockwell was taught by Frank Vincent Dumond, illustrator and impressionist painter; George Bridgeman, painter in the fields of anatomy and figure drawing; and illustrator Thomas Fogarty.

First Illustrations

Rockwell's first major breakthrough came in book illustration in 1912, at the age of 18 when he illustrated his first book Tell Me Why: Stories about Mother Nature, by the author Carl H Claudy. In 1913, Rockwell became the Art Editor for Boy's Life, a magazine published by the Boy Scouts of America. He painted and illustrated several front covers. At the age of 22 he sold his first front-cover illustration to the Saturday Evening Post. He would go on to create another 320 over the next forty years, in the process becoming one of the greatest modern artists in America. This early success with the Post, triggered commissions from other magazines, including Life, Judge and Leslie's. During the First World War Rockwell enlisted in the army and served as a war artist. After the War, he began creating advertising illustrations, including those for Orange Crush Soft Drinks, Willys Cars and Jell-O. In 1920 Rockwell created the images for the Boys Scout Calendar, which proved so popular he produced it every year, for the next fifty years.

Financial Success

By the early 1930s Rockwell was financially secure and, with his second wife, moved to a large farm in Arlington, Vermont. Here, his genre-painting began to reflect small time town life (in the style of regionalism), with images of local friendly policemen, doctors and dentists. In 1941 the Milwaukee Art Institute awarded Rockwell his first major solo exhibition. The same year, President Franklin Roosevelt gave a speech to Congress called the Four Essential Human Freedoms. Rockwell created four paintings to commemorate those freedoms entitled: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear. The paintings were published in the Saturday Post in 1943 and were hugely popular. The Federal Government took the original art works on tour, and used them as a marketing tool to push War Bonds. According to Ben Hibbs, Rockwell's biographer: 'They were viewed by 1,222,000 people in 16 leading cities and were instrumental in selling $132,992,539 worth of bonds'. Rockwell also produced images for special postage stamps, poster art during World War II - see History of Poster Art - greeting cards, mail-order catalogues and Hollywood movie posters. During the late 1940s Rockwell spent several months as an Artist-in-Residence at the Otis College of Art and Design.

Leaves Saturday Evening Post

In 1959 Rockwell's second wife died unexpectantly, and with the help of his son Thomas Rockwell, they wrote his autobiography - My Adventures as an Illustrator (published 1960), as a commemoration. The book contained one of Rockwell's most famous images: Triple Self-Portrait (The Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge, Massachusetts). The viewer is presented with a painting of Rockwell (portrait 1), as he looks in a mirror (portrait 2) for drawing guidance, while drawing his portrait (3) on canvas. In 1961 Rockwell remarried for a third time, a retired school teacher. The same year, he received an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the University of Massachusetts. Rockwell's relationship with the Saturday Evening Post finished in 1963, after a management decision to go for a new look and format. He continued however to illustrate for Look Magazine for another ten years.

Portraiture and Popular Culture

Rockwell also excelled at portrait art. During his long artistic career, he painted portraits of many famous public figures including JFK, Lyndon B Johnson, Richard Nixon, President Eisenhower and Judy Garland. In 1969 he was granted a solo exhibition in New York, which was extremely popular with the public, but received nasty remarks from critics. They dismissed Rockwell's painting as overly sweet and sentimental, saying he should not be considered a serious painter. In fact, some critics preferred to categorise him as an illustrator rather than an artist. Nevertheless, the public loved his work and his paintings fetched an average price of $20,000. Rockwell's client list was also extensive and included companies like Coca Cola, Ford, Hallmark, Heritage Press, Good Housekeeping, Literary Digest, Maxwell House, Encyclopedia Britannica and Parker Pens. In 1977 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honour.


Rockwell died in 1978, at the age of 84. One of the great realist artists of his day, and one of the most popular 20th century painters in America, his reputation continues to grow, and his illustrations continue to be re-printed in poster and magazine format. In 1999, a retrospective of his graphic art and realist painting was held at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. In 1993, the Rockwell Museum was opened near Stockbridge, and the curator carried out the first catalogue of the artist's works. It amounted to over 4,000 original drawings, paintings and illustrations. Posthumously defying his critics, Rockwell's works were exhibited at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2001; and his painting Breaking Home Ties sold for $15.4m at a Sotheby's auction in 2006. (See also: Most Expensive Paintings: Top 20.) The New York art critic Peter Schjeldahl commented: 'Rockwell is terrific. It has become too tedious to pretend he isn't'. In 2000 the New York Times stated Rockwell was 'the greatest artist of the last century'.

Rockwellian Style of Illustration

No American illustrator had a greater impact on early to mid-twentieth-century popular culture, or a more profound influence on many generations of American illustrators, than Norman Rockwell. He was the spiritual descendent of the great illustrator storytellers: Winslow Homer, Howard Pyle, and N.C.Wyeth. As such, he was a marker in the evolutionary progression of American illustration. His career took hold in the early 1920s, around the same time that photography completely transformed graphic journalism, making reportorial illustration virtually obsolete. But Rockwell steadfastly refused to let illustration become trivial. Using the camera as a reference tool, a means of freezing gesture and expression for future reference, he executed paintings of American life that gave full-colour, bolder dimension to his subjects than many of the half-tones commonly reproduced in national magazines. While most illustrators, especially those working for The Saturday Evening Post, stayed the course, producing reams of quixotic scenes and sight gags, Rockwell maintained a standard of excellence that far transcended a profession more concerned with servicing the ephemeral needs of the masses than making profound art.

Rockwell had a gift for reflecting his times through iconic representations of everyday life, and these became the unofficial/official art of his nation. From the 1920s through the 1950s, his style was the standard for commercial artists, who used Realism to illustrate books, magazines, and advertisements. Paradoxically, though, Rockwell's art was both a model for excellence and a blueprint for cliché.

Rockwell ultimately modelled his characters and applied his craft from an intuitive sense of what would appeal to an audience of average Americans, who were not interested in European modern art but enjoyed pictures that represented their own heroic yet commonplace lives. Owing to his success, many commercial illustrators copied Rockwell's manner - which itself owed a debt to the works of Michelangelo and the other Renaissance paintings - but most failed to capture Rockwell's genius for presenting the ordinary through extraordinary composition and gesture. Rockwell liberated American illustration from its reliance on archetypes; he introduced real-life protagonists instead of cardboard heroes. Yet he was the leader of a style that in lesser hands (and there were many) was an abyss of romanticism and sentimentality. His own portraits just bordered on caricature art to heighten drama and capture a moment. But, by comparison, most other illustrators of his day, including those working for The Saturday Evening Post, were flat.

Rockwell ran one step ahead of cliché, while his acolytes lagged a furlong behind. They copied what they thought Norman Rockwell should be, not what he was. Rockwell's most popular and populist series of paintings, the "Four Freedoms", were just brushstrokes away from mere propaganda for traditional American values. However, by skillfully balancing honest sentiment and uncompromised enthusiasm, and by remaining faithful to natural expression and body language, the idealism expressed in the representation of these virtues was elevated to a manifesto of faith, as well a document of art.

Owing to Rockwell's dominance, he was a lightning rod for change. Rockwell drew respectful fire from the young rebels, while his many imitators earned their contempt. "Rockwell" was a catch-all term for artists rooted in tried-and-true representational mannerisms, which dominated most American commercial art from roughly the mid-1950s until the mid-1950s. Rockwell's influence on the genre was widespread, and those who slavishly followed his surface style were published in all the magazines and illustration yearbooks. The verisimilitude of the kind that Rockwell accomplished so well, and that imitators attempted to capture, was anathema to a new breed of "expressive" artists who sought to liberate editorial (and possibly advertising) illustration from the stranglehold of academic verities and to reinvest it with expression.

Paintings and drawings by Norman Rockwell can be seen in some of the best art museums in America.

• For more biographies of American artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For details of American art movements, see: History of Art.
• For more information about modern painting in America, see: Homepage.

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