The nature of Norman Rockwell’s illustrations is almost too positive. An idealized Americana is at the heart of a Rockwell painting or character sketch. His most famous pictures appeal to the sentimental partd of our minds.
Rockwell’s artistic world occupied much of the 20th century through a rose colored filter. There were fuzzy-faced, grandfatherly men, cherubic grandmotherly women, fishing holes with rascally boys, and cheerleading girls. His work reflected a particularly mainstreamed idealized view of everyday life and events. It was what the public wanted life to be like, but not quite as gritty.
I grew up in a home where the Saturday Evening Post was eagerly awaited each week. In the 1960s, that magazine was a large format periodical. In addition to the Post, I received gift subscriptions to Boys Life magazine. Many of its covers featured Norman Rockwell illustrations. I remember contemplating those images that were so full of mundane details. They weren’t exactly fine art; they were interesting art. Even those Rockwell pictures that depicted sadness or tragedy seemed to have a seed of hope within them.
Although conservative minded Americans have long loved the paintings of the somewhat liberal Norman Rockwell. There was also something for liberal Americans to relate to. Some works of his later period touched on controversial themes of the day. I remember one cover of Look magazine that showed Ruby Bridges, the African-American pupil, being escorted to school by two caucasian federal marshalls on the first day of desegregation in New Orleans. There was that Rockwellian glimmer of something good in the midst of tension and hatred that came through the picture.
Rockwell was born in New York City, on February 3, 1894. At the age of 14 he transfered from public school to the National Academy of Design, and eventually to the Art Students League. His early commercial illustrations were shown in Boys’ Life, the magazine for the Boys Scouts of America. At age 19, Rockwell became the art editor for that magazine.
In his early 20s, Rockwell’s first Saturday Evening Post cover was published in 1916. In total, Rockwell created 323 original covers in 47 years for that magazine. His last Post cover was issued in 1963.
During the next decade, Rockwell contracted with Look, another large format magazine. This was his late period when his subject matter touched on poverty, civil rights, and the space program. In addition to his work for periodicals, Rockwell was commissioned to paint official portraits of four Presidents: Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon. Other commissioned portraits included those of Jawaharlal Nehru and Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Although critics consider Rockwell’s Post illustrations to be overly sweet, sentimental, and banal, they show more respect for his work done during his Look period. Regardless of the period, Rockwell’s original canvases now bring prices in the range of millions of dollars apiece.
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter awarded Rockwell the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the US. Norman Rockwell died of emphysema at the age of 84, on November 8, 1978. His legacy includes some 4,000 magazine covers, calendars, posters, catalogs, playing cards, portraits and murals.
I wish I still had some of those old Boys’ Life magazines.