Norman Rockwell was born in New York City on 3rd February, 1894. According to his biographer, Karal Ann Marling: "The young Norman was skinny and clumsy at sports. He feared the rough neighbourhoods near his family's home on the Upper West Side. Coddled by his mother, Nancy, who boasted of her English heritage and artistic forbears, he also came to resent her imaginary illnesses and spates of religious fervor."
Norman's father, Waring Rockwell, worked in the textile industry. He was also an amateur artist and spent time with his son copying illustrations out of magazines. Waring also read to his family the novels of Charles Dickens. While he read, Norman drew the characters from the novels. According to one art critic: "His (Norman Rockwell) strong sense of narrative and his eye for the telling detail were byproducts of those long, nurturing evenings in his father's company." During this period his artistic heroes were Charles Dana Gibson, Harrison Fisher, Howard Pyle and Newell Convers Wyeth.
In 1907 the family moved to Mamaroneck, a small settlement on the Long Island Sound. Rockwell went to the local school but travelled the 25 miles to Manhatten to study at the the New York School of Art, an institution run by the artist, William Merritt Chase. In 1909, at the age of 15, he left high school and enrolled in the National Academy School.
Rockwell found the teaching at the academy very conventional and in 1910 he joined the Art Students League. With teachers such as Thomas Eakins, Robert Henri, John Sloan, Art Young, George Luks, Boardman Robinson, George Bellows, Howard Pyle and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, it developed a reputation for progressive teaching methods and radical politics. At this time it had nearly a thousand students and was considered the most important art school in the country.
His main teacher was Thomas Fogarty. He later claimed that Fogarty's main contribution to his career was that he taught him the importance of meeting deadlines and following his client's wishes. Fogarty was impressed with Rockwell's talent that in 1913 he arranged for him to be appointed art editor of Boys' Life, the journal of the Boy Scouts of America.
Rockwell really wanted to work for the Saturday Evening Post and in March 1916 he visited its main office in Philadelphia. He showed the editor, George Horace Lorimer, a collection of front cover ideas. Lorimer was so impressed with the work that he purchased two cover pictures and commissioned three more. This was the start of his long-term relationship with the magazine that was to last over 45 years.
The author of Norman Rockwell (2005) has argued: "The pictorial cover was crucial to the success of a magazine. It had to make itself visible and comprehensible at a distance, so the casual passerby would want to pluck that issue off the rack at the newsstand. It had to identify the Saturday Evening Post and carry with it some slight hint of the character of the journal... In a sense, it also needed to mirror the taste and status of the potential reader, who could see him - or herself in that image. Covers were a tricky business, and one crucial to the success of the Saturday Evening Post."
Rockwell's first Saturday Evening Post cover appeared on 20th May, 1916. Boy with Baby Carriage shows a little boy, dressed in his Sunday best, pushing a baby in a pram past two other boys in baseball uniforms who mock him for the "unmanly" task he is performing. At this time, the covers were only printed in two colours, and Rockwell makes good use of the red and back on the white paper.
Rockwell used one boy, Billy Paine, to pose for all three characters. Rockwell used hats, haircuts, and facial expressions to disguise this fact. Rockwell later recalled: "At the beginning of the modeling sessions I'd set a stack of nickels on a table beside my easel. Every 25 minutes... I'd transfer of the nickels to the other side of the table, saying, Now that's your pile."
Later that year, Rockwell married Irene O'Connor, a local schoolteacher. The couple moved to New Rochelle where he takes over a studio that was formerly owned by Frederick Remington. By this time he was in great demand as an illustrator and provided a large number of covers for Saturday Evening Post and The Literary Digest. Rockwell was also recruited to produce illustrations for advertising that appeared in magazines and on posters.
Soon after the United States entered the First World War, Rockwell joined the US Navy. Over the next year Rockwell worked for US Navy publications. After the Armistice Rockwell returned to full-time illustrating. As well as magazine work, Rockwell became involved in designing advertising campaigns. As Karal Ann Marling has pointed out: "The big money of the era was in advertising art. Foodstuffs had been one of the first customer products to be branded... In the 1920s, a new, modern wave of edibles hit the mass market, with a corresponding demand for artwork to sell chewing gum, soft drinks, and candy."
One of Rockwell's most popular paintings, No Swimming, appeared on the front cover of the Saturday Evening Post on 4th June, 1921. The art critic, Christopher Finch, has argued: "We find that it has been painted in an almost impressionistic way. There is no question hem of an outline having been drawn then filled in with color. On the contrary, the image is built up from areas of boldly applied pigment - a well-loaded brush is evident - overlapping and overlaying each other to build up planes that create the illusion of solidity and depth. (Note in particular the way in which the anatomy of the boy in the foreground has been evoked.) Many of the edges of forms have been deliberately blurred in this picture, partly to help produce a sense of speed, but largely as a natural consequence of this approach to image-making. Even Rockwell's highly stylized signature is loosely painted."
In 1930 Rockwell went to Hollywood to paint the film-star Gary Cooper for the Saturday Evening Post. This was used to advertise Cooper's latest film, The Texan. As the author of Norman Rockwell (2005) has pointed out: "His time in Hollywood had important artistic consequences: Rockwell was becoming a master of theatrical and cinematic effects. His covers and occasional illustrations took on the appearance of moments from the movies, when the actors face the camera directly, when directors compose their scenes to under-score key moments in the script, when overstated costuming allows the audience to identify the genre at a glance. Rockwell's trip to Hollywood in 1930 cemented the connection between his art and the art of the filmmaker."
Rockwell divorced Irene in 1930. Soon afterwards he met Mary Barstow, another young school-teacher and later that year they got married. Over the next few years she gave birth to three sons: Jerry (1932), Tommy (1933) and Peter (1936).
Rockwell was a supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal. However, he was unable to express his political views in his covers for the Saturday Evening Post. He therefore had to rely on subtle methods to get his views across. For example, his cover, The Ticket Seller, that appeared on 24th April, 1937, shows a man selling tickets to holiday destinations, while trapped like a circus lion within his own cage.
In 1939 Rockwell and his family moved to Arlington, Vermont. On the outbreak of the Second World War, Rockwell offered his services free of charge to the United States Office of War Information (OWI) in Washington. He was rejected by the person in charge of pictorial propaganda with the words: "The last war you illustrators did the posters. This war we're going to use fine arts men, real artists."
Rockwell refused to be beaten and began thinking about he could help. He was eventually inspired by a joint statement made by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill about the reasons why it was important to fight a war against Nazi Germany. In his autobiography, he points out that after returning from a town meeting: "My gosh, I thought, that's it. There it is. Freedom of Speech. I'll illustrate the Four Freedoms using my Vermont neighbors as models. I'll express the ideas in simple, everyday scenes. Freedom of Speech - a New England town meeting. Freedom from Want - a Thanksgiving dinner."
The Freedom of Speech painting showed Jim Edgerton, who had argued for the building of a new high school in Arlington. Edgerton had found no support for his views. But the meeting had listened respectfully to his views. Norman Rockwell considered this was a good example of freedom of speech in action.
Rockwell found coming up with an idea for a painting on religion much more difficult. After making several false starts he painted a close-up portrait of seven individuals of various skin tones, united in prayer. Freedom to Worship included the words in golden letters at the top of the canvas: "Each according to the dictates of his own conscience."
Freedom from Want depicted his own family. The Rockwell cook, Mrs. Wheaton, is shown presenting the turkey. His wife, Mary Rockwell, can be seen on the left side of the table. His mother is the elderly lady seated across from her. Rockwell later recalled: "She (Mrs. Wheaton) cooked it, I painted it, and we ate it. That was one of the few times I've ever eaten the model."
The final painting, Freedom from Fear, was produced during the Blitz. It shows the husband and wife watching their two children asleep. The man carries a newspaper, with a headline referring to the bombing of London. His biographer, Karal Ann Marling, argues that: "The rag doll abandoned on the floor just behind his feet echoes the posture of the sleeping children but, in her limp, discarded form, also alludes to the European children who did not enjoy the safety of a warm bed guarded by caring parents."
When the editor of the Saturday Evening Post saw these four paintings he decided to publish them inside the magazine so that they would be suitable for framing. These were so popular that the United States Office of War Information printed 2,500,000 posters of the paintings. The original paintings went out on tour.
Another popular cover produced during the Second World War was Rosie the Riveter (29th May, 1943). The term Rosie the Riveter had been first used in a song of the same name written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb in 1942. The song portrays Rosie as an assembly line worker, who is filling the role of man who had joined the armed forces. By the time Rockwell painted the picture Rosie had become a feminist icon.
Rockwell also produced humorous covers for the Saturday Evening Post during the war. A good example of this is Tattoo Artist that appeared on 4th March, 1944. In the painting the tattoos is in the process of crossing out the names of girls already displayed on the arm of the sailor. The work makes fun of sailors who had the reputation of having a different girlfriend at every port.
The art critic, Ken Johnson, has argued: "It is no secret that Rockwell relied on photographs to achieve the seeming naturalism of his paintings. But the extent and sophistication of his use of photography from the late 1930s on will come as a surprise to many of his fans and detractors. Rockwell did not shoot his pictures, but employed professional photographers, including Gene Pelham, Bill Scovill, Louis J. Lamone and others who remain unidentified. But Rockwell did orchestrate every other aspect of studio sessions. He found and bought props; recruited friends, acquaintances and relatives as models; constructed sets; and conceived scenes like a Hollywood movie director."
After the war Rockwell was probably the best known artist in the United States. Christopher Finch has pointed out: "We should not judge Rockwell by individual work, nor even by a selection of his finest pictures, but rather by the cumulative effect of his total output. It is this that makes Rockwell so outstanding a figure in the pantheon of American popular culture. Elsewhere I have remarked that it seems, at first glance, almost absurd to talk of Norman Rockwell as having a distinctive style - his stock in trade is quasi-photographic realism, and his technique derives from a variety of conventional academic sources - yet a Rockwell painting is immediately recognizable as a Rockwell painting. Clearly he does have a style that is unlike any other. It is not easy to define. however, because it dots not depend upon any broad mannerisms. It is, rather, made up of small but significant deviations from the photographic and academic norms."
In 1947 Rockwell helped to establish the Famous Artists School in Westport, Connecticut. The organisation, headed by Albert Dorne, ran corresponding courses. Faculty members that included Rockwell, Austin Briggs, Stevan Dohanos, Robert Fawcett, Peter Helck, Fred Ludekens, Al Parker, Ben Stahl, Harold von Schmidt and Jon Whitcomb, produced step-by-step textbooks on how to produce art work for magazine covers and illustrations for advertising campaigns.
Rockwell's wife, Mary, suffered from alcoholism and a variety of other health problems. She was treated at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. In 1953 Norman Rockwell moved to the town to be close to his wife and to receive treatment for depression. In 1959 Mary died unexpectedly of heart failure.
Rockwell also had strong political views. He felt particularly strongly over the issue of civil rights. Ken Stuart, the art director of the Saturday Evening Post, began turning down his front covers. On other occasions, he had section of a cover painting repainted without telling the artist that he had done so. Rockwell threatened to stop working for the magazine, but the editor, Ben Hibbs, promised it would not happen again.
On 13th February, 1960, the magazine's front-cover was Triple Self-Portrait. The Saturday Evening Post acknowledged his importance to the magazine by publishing a serial version of autobiography that year. This was later released as a book, My Adventures as an Illustrator. Rockwell was a great supporter of John F. Kennedy and his last illustration for the magazine was a portrait of the assassinated president on 14th December, 1963.
The death of Kennedy convinced him to join Look Magazine, as a commentator of current affairs. Rockwell's first double-page illustration for the magazine, The Problem We All Live With (14th January, 1964) was one of his most memorable paintings. It shows Ruby Bridges, who in 1960, when she was 6 years old, became involved in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) campaign to integrate the New Orleans School system. When she entered William Frantz Elementary School in 1960 she became the first African-American child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South.
Rockwell also painted Southern Justice, that dealt with the deaths of three Congress on Racial Equality field-workers in Meridian, Mississippi, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, on 21st June, 1964. The painting appeared in Look Magazine on 29th June, 1965. The magazine also published several of his paintings that reflected his opposition to the Vietnam War.
Karal Ann Marling has argued: "Some Americans turned a blind eye to Rockwell's pleas for racial justice and idealism, however. In the summer of 1964, three so-called Freedom Riders James Chancy, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman were killed for their efforts to register black voters in the South. Eventually, their bodies were discovered in an earthen dam in rural Philadelphia, Mississippi. Rockwell responded in Look in June of 1965 with an imaginative recreation of their martyrdom. In the harsh glare of headlights, the shadows of armed Klansmen draw closer to the bleeding figure of Chancy, in the arms of one of his white companions. The painting argues for the brotherhood of the trio and presents their attackers as inhuman creatures of the night. The landscape is an almost Biblical scene of desolation: bare, rock-strewn, and forbidding -a killing ground. It is Norman Rockwell's most passionate indictment to date of the nation whose little missteps and personal follies had been his lifelong preoccupation. The second great issue of the decade was the spreading conflict in Indochina. By the end of 1965, 150,000 American troops were fighting in Vietnam and opposition to the war was growing. In a work originally painted for the Congress of Racial Equality, Rockwell shows slaughter as the great equalizer of America's blacks and whites. The two young men who lie side by side in death have become Blood Brothers. In at least one of the preliminary sketches for the work, they wear the uniforms of U. S. Marines."
Norman Rockwell died at his home in Stockbridge on 8th November, 1978.