Norman Rockwell

Artist Biography

America’s Favorite Illustrator

By Amy Spencer

Norman Rockwell was a skilled painter, whose illustrations of every day life honored American society.

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Notes
VII. Suggested Resources

I. Biography

Norman Percevel Rockwell is one of America’s most popular and beloved illustrators. His famous paintings of everyday life in the twentieth century adorned the covers of The Saturday Evening Post magazine for more than four decades. During his career, Rockwell was also commissioned to illustrate over 40 books, and created a significant body of politically charged images for Life magazine. The height of Rockwell’s sustained regard is represented by the commissions he received to paint portraits of U. S. Presidents in office: Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon.

Rockwell was an extremely prolific painter producing over 4,000 original works over his near seventy year career. Most of these paintings are either now in permanent collections or were destroyed by a studio fire in 1943. A significant collection of Rockwell’s work is held by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts.

Norman Rockwell was born in New York City in 1894, and grew up in Mamaroneck twenty-five miles north of the city in Westchester County. Rockwell enjoyed drawing and as a teenager studied at Chase Art School, the National Academy of Design, and the Arts Students League. In 1911, while still a student, Rockwell had his first major publication breakthrough illustrating Carl H. Claudy’s book, Tell Me Why: Stories. The same year, he had his first drawings published in Boys’ Life, the monthly magazine of the Boy Scouts of America. The editor of the magazine was so impressed by Rockwell’s work that he made him art director of the magazine in 1913 when Rockwell was only eighteen-years-old.

Rockwell moved with his family to New Rochelle, New York in 1915, where he shared a studio with the cartoonist Clyde Forsythe. Rockwell began producing works for magazines such as Life, Literary Digest, and Country Gentleman, and in 1916, he painted his first cover for The Saturday Evening Post. This was the start of his long-term relationship with the magazine; over the next 47 years, Rockwell painted a further 321 covers for the Post.

In 1916, Rockwell married his first wife, Irene O’Connor (they divorced in 1930). Shortly after he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, and spent two years stationed in Charleston, North Carolina working as a military artist. During this time Rockwell was still able to create paintings for Post covers in his spare time.

After Armistice, Rockwell returned to full-time illustrating. He also became involved in advertising design, creating images for products such as Jell-O, Willys cars, and Orange Crush soft drinks. In 1920, he was hired to paint a picture for the Boy Scout calendar (he annually provided an illustration for the calendar for the next fifty years). In 1930, Rockwell married Mary Barstow, with whom he had three sons. The family moved to a sixty-acre farm in Arlington, Vermont and Rockwell’s work began to reflect small-town American life. In 1941, the Milwaukee Art Institute gave Rockwell his first one-man show in a major museum.

In 1943, during the Second World War, Rockwell painted the Four Freedoms series. The series was inspired by President Franklin Roosevelt’s address to Congress in which he described four principles for universal rights: Freedom from Want, Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Worship, and Freedom from Fear. The Post published the series and it became so popular the U.S. Treasury Department organized a nationwide tour for the paintings. Subsequently, the Office of War Information used the series as posters that encouraged the public to buy War bonds. The Four Freedoms paintings are now in the collection of the Norman Rockwell Museum.

Despite the success of the Four Freedoms series, 1943 was also a year of misfortune for Rockwell as a fire destroyed his studio. He lost original paintings as well as his collection of historical costumes and props. After the fire, Rockwell moved with his family to a new home nearby in West Arlington, Vermont.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Rockwell continued to produce magazine covers, as well as creating illustrations for Postal Service stamps, advertising catalogs, Hallmark greeting cards, calendars, and books such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In 1953, Rockwell and his family moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Six years later, his wife Mary suffered a heart attack and died. In 1960, Rockwell’s autobiography, My Adventures as an Illustrator, was published. The following year he married retired school teacher Molly Punderson.

In 1963, Rockwell ended his forty-seven year association with the Post and began to work primarily for Look magazine. Over the next decade at Look, Rockwell painted pictures that illustrated some of his deepest concerns and interests, including civil rights, poverty, and the exploration of space. These more serious late career works saw Rockwell receive more critical attention as an artist.

In 1973, Rockwell established a trust to preserve his artistic legacy by placing his works in the custodianship of the Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge. In 1977, Rockwell received the Presidential Medal, America’s highest civilian honor. Rockwell died at his home on November 8, 1978.

The public has always loved Rockwell’s work, and thus have collected his works passionately. In 2006, an artist record was set an auction when Rockwell’s Breaking Home Ties (1954) sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $15,416,000, an astonishing sale considering the pre-auction estimate of four to six million dollars.1

While Rockwell’s works have always been highly coveted by collectors, critics have been more cautious with their attentions, as Rockwell’s sentimentalized portrayals of American life have swung in and out of fashion. However, over the last decade, art historians have begun to positively reassess Rockwell’s oeuvre. For example, Rockwell’s contribution to American painting was recognized with a major exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in 2001. Responding to this exhibition, Peter Schjeldahl wrote in the New Yorker, “Steeped in the history and rhetoric of Western painting, Rockwell was a visual storyteller of genius. More than that, he was a story-maker, a bard. He didn’t illustrate Middle America. He invented Middle America.”2

II. Chronology

1894 Born in New York City
1903 Moves with family to Mamaroneck in Westchester County, New York
1908 Attends Chase Art School, New York City (now Parsons The New School for Design)
1909 Attends the National Academy of Design
1910 Transfers to the Art Students League, teachers are Thomas Fogarty, George Bridgman, and Frank Vincent Dumond
Receives first commission to illustrate four Christmas cards
1911 First book illustrations published in Carl H. Claudy’s Tell Me Why Stories
1912 Earns enough commissions, in children’s publications such as St. Nicholas Magazine and Boys’ Life, to become a full-time illustrator
Rock moves back to New York City
1913 Becomes the art editor for Boys’ Life, published by the Boy Scouts of America
1915 Moves to New Rochelle, New York, and shares a studio with cartoonist Clyde Forsythe who works for The Saturday Evening Post
1916 Has eight cover paintings published in The Saturday Evening Post (illustrates 321 covers over 47 years)
Marries Irene O’Connor (they divorce in 1930)
1917-18 Serves in the Navy working as a war artist stationed in Charleston, South Carolina
Continues to illustrates covers for Post, and other publications such as Collier’s, Literary Digest, Country Gentleman, Leslie’s Weekly, Judge, People’s Popular Monthly, and Life Magazine
1923 Travels to Paris and experiments briefly with modern art
1925 Illustration published in the annual Boy Scouts calendar (he annually provides an illustration for the calendar for the next fifty years)
1930 Marries Mary Barstow (they have three children, Jarvis Waring, Thomas Rhodes, and Peter Barstow)
1939 Moves to Arlington, Vermont, where his works begins to reflect small-town life
Recipient of the Silver Buffalo Award, the highest adult award given by the Boy Scouts of America
1943 Paints the Four Freedoms series, inspired by a speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt; it takes seven months to complete
Four Freedom paintings are published in the Post, and are toured throughout America by the U.S. Treasury Department
A fire destroys numerous works in Rockwell’s studio
1947 Four Seasons illustrations are published in a calendar by Brown & Bigelow (Rockwell illustrates annually for the calendar for the next 17 years)
Spends winter as artist-in-residence at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, California
1951 Paints Saying Grace, his most popular Post cover
1953 Moves to Stockbridge, Massachusetts
1958 Mary Barstow dies unexpectedly,
Rockwell takes time off painting to grieve
1960 Publishes his autobiography, My Adventures as an Illustrator
Paints President John F. Kennedy’s portrait
1961 Marries Molly Punderson, a retired school teacher
1963 Last painting for the Post published
Spends the next ten years painting for Look magazine, illustrating subjects such as civil rights, poverty, and space exploration
1969 Paints one of his last portraits of the singer Judy Garland
1973 Establishes a trust, placing his works in the custodianship of the Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge.
1977 Receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom
1978 Dies of emphysema at age 84 while at home in Stockbridge

III. Collections

Museum of Fine Arts, TX
National Museum of American Illustration, RI
Norman Rockwell Museum, MA
Arkell Museum, NY
Columbus Museum of Art, OH
Corcoran Gallery of Art, DC
Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma, OK
Indianapolis Museum of Art, IN
Los Angeles County Museum, CA
National Portrait Gallery, DC
Rockwell Museum of Western Art, NY
Sheldon Art Gallery, NE
Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, IL
Smithsonian American Art Museum, DC
Wichita Art Museum, KS

IV. Exhibitions

1941 Milwaukee Art Institute, Milwaukee, WI
1972 Norman Rockwell: A Sixty Year Retrospective, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, NY
1999 Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA
2001 Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY
2002 American Life and Storytelling: The Art of Norman Rockwell, The Tyler Museum of Art, Tyler, TX
2004 Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms: Paintings that Inspired a Nation, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
2005 Norman Rockwell’s 323 Saturday Evening Post Covers, Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, MA
2006 Norman Rockwell’s in the 1940s: A View of the American Homefront, Normal Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, MA
2009 Rockwell’s America: Celebrating the Art of Norman Rockwell, Ohio Historical Center, Columbus, OH
American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI

V. Memberships

Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts, University of Massachusetts

VI. Notes

Sotheby’s, American Paintings, New York, November 29, 2006, Sale N08249, Lot 16,
Peter Schjeldahl, The Art World, “Fanfares for the Common Man,” The New Yorker, November 22, 1999, p. 190.

VII. Suggested Resources

Buechner, Thomas S., Norman Rockwell: Artist and Illustrator, New York: H. N. Abrams, 1970.
Buechner, Thomas S., Norman Rockwell: A Sixty Year Retrospective, New York: H. N. Abrams, 1972.
Claridge, Laura P., Norman Rockwell: A Life, New York: Random House, 2001.
Flythe, Starkey, Jr., Norman Rockwell and the Saturday Evening Post: The Complete Cover Collection, 1916-1971, New York: MJF Books, 1994.
Marling, Karal Ann, Norman Rockwell, 1894-1978: America's Most Beloved Painter, London: Taschen, 2005.
Moline, Mary, Norman Rockwell Encyclopedia: A Chronological Catalog of the Artist's Work 1910–1978, Indianapolis: Curtis, 1979.
Halpern, Richard, Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Rockwell, Norman, Norman Rockwell: My Adventures as an Illustrator: An Autobiography, Indianapolis: Curtis, 1979.

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