Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell. The Artist's Daughter. c1940

Norman Rockwell in his studio
Picture of Norman Rockwell in his studio.

Form: Oil on Canvas. Though he was, by all accounts a painter, he is often referred to as an illustrator because of the work he did for various magazines. His work is very detailed and realistic, he most often painted scenes that are best described as 'Americana'. Working in the 40's and 50's, he was influenced greatly by the scenes of the war and social unrest, but did not let them make his paintings overtly political or depressing. Just the opposite, he chose gentle, touching scenes from everyday life. 

Iconography: Norman Rockwell was a family man. He had a strong moral conscience when it came to family life and child-rearing. Often, he would paint scenes of young boys at play, innocent and untouched by the worries of the adult world. Here, he is painting a tender portrait of his daughter in a scene that could very well be from his own observation. It shows a scene in which the daughter emulates the father, trying to step into his shoes. She is using his palette, grasped in her tiny hand it almost dwarfs her entire length. The brush, too, is almost too big for her hands, and she is trying on her fathers expression, one of observation and concentration as she tries to accurately capture the look on her dolls face. There are no hidden meanings or deep, tortured-artists statements to be made in this work, it is, very simply, what you see is what you get.

Context: "Born in New York City in 1894, Norman Rockwell always wanted to be an artist. At age 14, Rockwell enrolled in art classes at the New York School of Art (formerly the Chase School of Art). Two years later, in 1910, he left high school to study art at the National Academy of Design. He soon transferred to the Art Students League, where he studied with Thomas Fogarty and George Bridgman. Fogarty's instruction in illustration prepared Rockwell for his first commercial commissions. From Bridgman, Rockwell learned the technical skills on which he relied throughout his long career. Rockwell found success early. He painted his first commission of four Christmas cards before his sixteenth birthday. While still in his teens, he was hired as art director of Boys' Life, the official publication of the Boy Scouts of America, and began a successful freelance career illustrating a variety of young people's publications. At age 21, Rockwell's family moved to New Rochelle, New York, a community whose residents included such famous illustrators as J.C. and Frank Leyendecker and Howard Chandler Christy. There, Rockwell set up a studio with the cartoonist Clyde Forsythe and produced work for such magazines as Life, Literary Digest, and Country Gentleman. In 1916, the 22-year-old Rockwell painted his first cover for The Saturday Evening Post, the magazine considered by Rockwell to be the "greatest show window in America." Over the next 47 years, another 321 Rockwell covers would appear on the cover of the Post. Also in 1916, Rockwell married Irene O'Connor; they would go on to divorce in 1930. The '30s and '40s are generally considered to be the most fruitful decades of Rockwell's career. In 1930 he married Mary Barstow, a schoolteacher, and the couple had three sons: Jarvis, Thomas, and Peter. The family moved to Arlington, Vermont in 1939, and Rockwell's work began, more consistently, to reflect small-town American life.
In 1943, inspired by President Franklin Roosevelt's address to Congress, Rockwell painted the Four Freedoms paintings. They were reproduced in four consecutive issues of The Saturday Evening Post with essays by contemporary writers. Rockwell's interpretations of Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear proved to be enormously popular. The works toured the United States in an exhibition that was jointly sponsored by the Post and the U.S. Treasury Department and, through the sale of war bonds, raised more than $130 million for the war effort. Although the Four Freedoms series was a great success, 1943 also brought Rockwell an enormous loss. A fire destroyed his Arlington studio as well as numerous paintings and his collection of historical costumes and props. In 1953, the Rockwell family moved from Arlington, Vermont, to Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Six years later, Mary Barstow Rockwell died unexpectedly. In collaboration with his son Thomas, Rockwell published his autobiography, My Adventures as an Illustrator, in 1960. The Saturday Evening Post carried excerpts from the best-selling book in eight consecutive issues, with Rockwell's Triple Self-Portrait on the cover of the first. In 1961, Rockwell married Molly Punderson, a retired teacher. Two years later, he ended his 47-year association with The Saturday Evening Post and began to work for Look magazine. During his 10-year association with Look, Rockwell painted pictures illustrating some of his deepest concerns and interests, including civil rights, America's war on poverty, and the exploration of space. In 1973, Rockwell established a trust to preserve his artistic legacy by placing his works in the custodianship of the Old Corner House Stockbridge Historical Society, later to become the Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge. The trust now forms the core of the Museum's permanent collections. In 1976, in failing health, Rockwell became concerned about the future of his studio. He arranged to have his studio and its contents added to the trust. In 1977, Rockwell received the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for his "vivid and affectionate portraits of our country." He died at his home in Stockbridge on November 8, 1978, at the age of 84." (


Norman Rockwell. Grace Before the Meal. c1950

Jean- Baptiste Simeon Chardin- 
Grace at Table (also called Benediction)
1740 o/c

Form: Oil on canvas

Iconography: Almost every religion that recognizes prayer is able to associate themselves with this painting,  "The American art world is finally reevaluating Norman Rockwell, appreciating his skill and subject matter so derided and dismissed as mere illustration by the elites and radicals when he was alive. His characters no longer evoke cornball sentimentalism, not even to the sophisticated critics. In fact, some critics
now compare his work to that of the 19th century French satirist Honore Daumier, and to the two splendid 17th century Dutch painters, Jan Vermeer and Frans Hals. The final destination for the traveling show is
the prestigious Guggenheim Museum in New York. Critics of yore are spinning over that one. In Rockwell paintings we find America's Every family, the hometown boy and girl, mother and father, grandmother and grandfather who built on the dream of our Founding Fathers. They are as individualized as universalized, with the fruits of the Declaration of Independence spilling onto our daily lives. 
When the Saturday Evening Post asked its readers in 1955 to pick the Norman Rockwell cover they liked the best, most chose "Saying Grace,'' a plain and homely grandmother and grandson are depicted saying a blessing before a meal in a restaurant as others watch with nonchalance. It's about faith and tolerance, the religious and secular coexistent in the landscape of everyday life. The painting is free of an overt message -- you'll find no preaching here
-- but it's an emblematic snapshot of continuity in a country where social mores are forever changing. Prayer is part of the mix. So is the gratitude for the bounty of the table." (Jewish World Review July 3, 2000/30 Sivan, 5760) 

Context: As one of his earlier works, Rockwell still had the focus on strong family values. He is here showing the generations of one family coming together before a meal, the grandmother, the young boy, and the older adolescents. It was a view of America that showed it as safe, loving and strong in family.

It is also interesting to compare this image with a painting by the same title by Chardin.


Norman Rockwell. Abstract and Concrete. 1962
Form: Oil on canvas

Iconography: It is fairly evident what ideals Rockwell was commenting on with this piece,“ Norman Rockwell's January 1962 Post cover was atypical of what America had become accustomed to since he landed his first commission with the magazine in 1916.  It wasn't comical. In his realistic almost photographic style Rockwell depicted of the backside of businessman standing in a gallery, contemplating the meaning of a huge abstract painting that looked as if the artist had dripped his multitude of oils from a stick or can onto the canvas while it was lying on the floor. The illustrator's rendering of Abstract & Concrete must have been indicative of what Rockwell, then 68, was pondering at the time.  "How will I be remembered? As a technician or artist? As a humorist or a visionary?"  This was the beginning of one of the most turbulent times in America. When the seriousness of the 20th century would become even more serious. A century in which the majority of those deemed as socially significant art critics would use words like"master" to describe modernists like Jackson Pollack while scoffing at the artisan most popular to the people.” …..”In the sixties his subjects broadened to include political portraits, poverty, race relations and the space exploration. "Without thinking
too much about it in specific terms, I was showing the America I knew and observed to
others who might not have noticed," he said. "My fundamental purpose is to interpret
the typical American. I guess I am a story teller." ( 

Context: Norman Rockwell was exceedingly talented. In his time he was seen as little more than an illustrator, his work derided by some as too generic and ‘sappy’. It is ironic then, that in the backlash from an artworld filled with abstract, unreadable images, that his work is now being hailed as that on par with a Caravaggio or Rembrandt. If we could say that he was looking into the future, it would be safe to assume that this is Rockwell himself, looking at the art that had cost him his ability to be viewed as a fine artist. In the end, however, it was the same work that has now raised him onto a pedestal.



Norman Rockwell. The Problem We All Live With. 1964
Form: Oil on canvas

Iconography: Rockwell had seen a lot in his lifetime, and entering old age he found himself embroiled in the most controversial decades of American history, dealing with integration, civil rights, and political unrest. Rockwell, though a paragon of whitebread America, believed firmly in change, and that every human is equal. He shows the little girl, head held high, embarking on a journey that most adults would not dare take. In an interview with Peter Rockwell, Norman Rockwells’ son, Ray Suarez and Maureen Hart-Hennesey have this to say about the work,..“ Though America was torn by rapid breakneck economic and technological change, Depression and war, Rockwell used his prodigious talent in the service of business. The "Prayerful Silence," worthy of a Flemish master, sold raisins. His use of models from his New England home towns results in an America that is virtually all white. The cities, teeming with immigrants from around the world, and their children, the suffering and desperation of the 30's, the lives of millions of industrial workers rarely appeared. Instead, we got prom couples, cute as buttons; dogs that always seem to stay puppies; lovable old codgers, and grandmothers who look like, well, grannies -- a world where it rarely rained-- that is, until the later years. In 1963, Rockwell left "the Saturday Evening Post" and began work for "Look" magazine where he explored more controversial issues such as housing integration and school desegregation, as in this work, "The Problem we all Live with." 


"The Problem we all Live with" was inspired by Rockwell's remembering the story of ruby bridges, who is the African American girl who was the only black child sent to desegregate an all-white school in New Orleans, and this happened in 1960, and she really was tormented-- literally had to run a gauntlet every day of white parents throwing things at her and yelling at her, and was accompanied to school every day by the U.S. Marshals. But there's a real violence inherent, I think, in that scene. You can see where the tomato has been thrown at the... At the child, and the words that are scrawled on the wall behind her that it could explode at any moment-- and he really captures that.”
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“A controversial artist, even today. And controversy has followed him for decades. Prestigious bastions of Art, 'High' and 'Low,' museums and galleries, have refused to show his retrospective. And even the Chicago Tribune felt compelled to run dual reviews -- Pro and Contra -- of the current exhibition scheduled to run until May 21st at the Chicago Historical Society. Norman Rockwell... Or, as many would have it, Norman Rockwell !?! Yes, "Pictures for the American People" has arrived: Seventy oil paintings, all 322 covers for the Saturday Evening Post, as well as  studies in oil and pencil, and photographs.  One should note that it isn't -- necessarily -- Norman Rockwell's politics or religious views that are so often attacked  or disdained. He was what in any milieu one would have to call 'a decent man,' and in many instances, courageous.

His painting, The Problem We All Live With appeared on the cover of Look magazine on January 14, 1964. It infuriated some, heartened the hopes of others, shamed many, and was met with indifference or scorn by the Art Establishment. The Problem We All Live With strikes directly at the heart and exemplifies Rockwell's  hallmark approach: strong horizontals, close foreground, and, especially, telling details which draw the viewer into  concluding a narrative, one orchestrated to move him. The perceptive viewer notes not only the confident posture  and countenance of the young girl -- her escorts are cropped and anonymous agents of the law -- but the writ in the pocket of the advancing guard, the contrast of schoolbooks with the graffiti on the wall, the smashed tomato the least of projectiles launched in those times). It is an approach common to centuries of fine art, emblematic and immediate. But Rockwell's concern at this date is not doctrine, or delight: he stirs a decent empathy, a quietly  powerful outrage.”