Norman Rockwell: A Star on Our Flag
By Judy A. G. Cutler
I'm not a historian. I just painted the things I saw around me. I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed. -Norman, Rockwell
Rockwell truly reflected the currents of American life and times, from his earliest drawings to the patriotic themes of World W
ar II to more politically oriented themes in his later years. His genius was in being able to capture the essence of what is now considered largely 'an America vanished.' Before the media revolution and, 'the age of the boob tube,' people looked forward to and identified with the magazine covers. The Norman Rockwell covers captured the emotions of the times, not only that which was, but what people would have liked life to be.
Unfortunately, many people know 'the look' of Norman Rockwell art, but not the art. Furthermore, most know it only from reproductions of the art or commercial exploitations such as: cartoon-like figurines, bells, beer mugs, serving trays or other licensed reprographics. It is absolutely necessary to see his original works to fully understand Rockwell's talent and place as an important American artist. One look at an original painting will make apparent the quality of his technique, style and craftsmanship.
Born in New York City in 1894, Rockwell spent his childhood and adolescence there, with significant summer excursions into the country. He felt a strong sense of connection not only with nature, but with the people who had chosen to live 'on nature's terms.' Rockwell's early inspiration to draw and paint came from his father, an avid Sunday painter. It also came indirectly from his grandfather's primitive canvases of bucolic barnyard scenes. These paintings of animals and farm buildings were great exercises in detail.
After dropping out of high school at sixteen, he attended classes at the National Academy School, which he found stifling and restrictive. He quickly transferred to the newly formed Art Students League. At the A.S.L, Rockwell learned anatomical accuracy under George Bridgeman and composition from Thomas Fogarty.
Fashionable illustrators of the time such as N. C. Wyeth, J. C. Leyendecker, and Howard Pyle were powerful influences on Rockwell. During his early years, he studied every magazine, which printed Howard Pyle's paintings. His admiration for J. C. Leyendecker was even more obsessive. In 1915, after completing his studies in New York City, Rockwell moved to New Rochelle, New York, to be near Leyendecker. He even went so far as to follow Leyendecker around town just to see how he acted. He would question J. C.'s models about what type of brushes and paints J. C. used.
At twenty-two years of age in 1916, Rockwell sold his first cover piece to The Saturday Evening Post. It was the beginning of a 324-cover relationship between Rockwell and the "Post". Beginning with his earliest drawings, Rockwell followed in the footsteps of the nineteenth-century genre painters such as J. G. Brown and Thomas Waterman Wood. He painted 'slices of life.' In his early black and white paintings, such as "Bellville and the Mexican" from 1915, for St. Nicholas magazine, Rockwell had not yet fully developed his own style.
As late as 1919, four-color printing was still very expensive, and most popular storytelling magazine covers were produced in limited color. Like his predecessor, Howard Pyle, whose chronicles of pirates and revolutionary days were printed in black and white, Rockwell met the editorial, requirements by painting the early originals without color, reproduced from fully executed paintings.
In 1919, First Shave appeared on the cover of Farm and Fireside, a national farm magazine. Ultimately, five of his covers were printed between 1918 and 1922. scenes were painted in the red, black and white colors commonly used in his early work, but by this time he had developed his own distinctive and recognizable style. In a sense, Rockwell was the last of the nineteenth-century genre painters, but one who came into his creative powers at a time when a new audience and a new market was opening up. Mass-circulated national magazines with great popularity catapulted certain artists into millions of households weekly and Rockwell clearly had the right talent at the right time.
In the 1920's and 1930's, Rockwell's work developed more breadth and greater character. His use of humor, which had already been developed in the character of 'Cousin Reginald' (a young boy who was always prim and proper), became an important part of his work. 'Cousin Reginald' even was used to show off a new 'Best-Ever Suit' to the other kids in the playground. (This 'kids at play' theme was quite popular for Rockwell's early subjects.) It was a technique he used effectively to draw the viewer into the composition to share the magic of the moment with the artist.
Rockwell was constantly seeking new ideas and new faces in his daily life. He wrote that everything he had ever seen or done had gone into his pictures. He painted not only the scenes and people close to him but, in a quest for authenticity, would approach total strangers and ask them to sit for him. When Rockwell painted The Hayseed Critic (a "Post" cover for July 21, 1928), he asked a young art student to pose with his paint box. That very box was the first box Rockwell used when he went to the National Academy School in New York at sixteen.
Photo: The Society of Illustrators
His internal art of 'storytelling' became integrated with his external skills as an artist. What emerged was what we know today as an incredible facility in judging the perfect moment; when to stop the action, snap the picture ... when all the elements that define and embellish a total story are in place.
In 1930, he married Mary Barstow and began a family of three sons, who would become part of his stable of models and a ready source of inspiration. In 1936, Editor George Horace Lorimer retired from The Saturday Evening Post, and the second of two successive editors, Ben Hibbs, altered the circular format of the cover. In fact, Hibbs permitted Norman Rockwell to create with more freedom within a different cover layout. The new mood of both the magazine and the country was reflected in Rockwell's work, as he used the entire cover, unconfined by borders and logos, to express himself.
In the 1940's, Rockwell moved to Arlington, Vermont, where he started to paint the full-canvas paintings that are increasingly treasured by collectors today. With Grandma Moses as a friend and neighbor and local townspeople as his models, Rockwell became a living part of Americana - a national treasure. During his Vermont years he flourished, but always, as he realized, as an illustrator not an artist. Norman Rockwell was acutely aware of his goals as an artist and his lack of critical acceptance.
During World War II, Rockwell joined the legion of artists and writers involved in the war effort to help boost the sale of savings bonds. His 1942 painting, Hometown News, was the fourth cover in the "Willie Gillis" series and families all over identified with him. Willie Gillis became the most famous soldier of World War II appearing on eleven "Post" covers. Rockwell tried to explain through his art, what the war was all about. The result of his efforts was "The Four Freedoms," at first rejected by the government and then printed by the millions to sell war bonds.
In the 1960's, from his home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Rockwell struck out in a new direction. Though by then his rep-utation was rooted in the evocation of nostalgia, he boldly tack-led political issues. "The Problem We Ail Live With", confronted America's racial tensions. "The Peace Corps in Ethiopia" captured the idealism of the Kennedy years in a realistic setting. He painted portraits not only of President Kennedy, but also of Eisenhower, Nixon, and Johnson as well as portraits of other world, leaders including Nehru of India and Nasser of Egypt.
In 1962, Rockwell was quoted in Esquire magazine as saying.
"I call myself an illustrator but I am not an illustrator. Instead I paint storytelling pictures which are quite popular but unfashionable."
"Unfashionable" was a misnomer; his works were in fact very popular, but he was extremely sensitive to the way the art world as well as the public judged him.
"No man with a conscience can just bat out illustrations. He's got to put all of his talent, all of his feeling into them. If illustration is not considered art, then that is something that we have brought upon ourselves by not considering ourselves artists. I believe that we should say, 'I am not just an illustrator, I am an artist."'
Today he is gone, but as they say, he is larger than life. His works are recognized worldwide and his name is used universally to describe a lifestyle and an era considered distinctly American.Norman Rockwell, Chevy Corvettes, and the New York Yankees.
Norman Rockwell, Harley-Davidsons, and apple-pie.
Norman Rockwell, ice cream, and the stars and stripes.
Norman Rockwell has become a star on our flag itself.