Norman Rockwell January 10, 2020
His Early Years
Born in New York City on February 3, 1894, Norman Rockwell knew, by the time he was 14, that he would be a professional artist. It was then that he began taking classes at The New School of Art. Two years later, Rockwell dropped out of high school and enrolled at the National Academy of Design, later transferring to the Art Students League of New York. Upon graduating, Rockwell found immediate work as an illustrator for Boys’ Life magazine.
In 1916, the 22-year-old Rockwell married his first wife, Irene O’Connor, and painted his first cover for The Saturday Evening Post. It was the beginning of a 47-year relationship with the iconic magazine. Over the span of his career, Rockwell painted a total of 321 covers for the Post. In 1920, the Boy Scouts of America featured the first Rockwell painting in their yearly calendar. Rockwell continued to paint for the Boy Scouts for the rest of his life. One of his most iconic covers was the 1927 celebration of Charles Lindbergh’s crossing of the Atlantic.
Rockwell’s ‘Small Town’ Success
The 1930s and ’40s proved to be the most fruitful period for Rockwell. In 1930, he married his second wife, Mary Barstow. They had three sons, Jarvis, Thomas and Peter. In 1939, the family moved to Arlington, Vermont, a location that gave Rockwall the perfect material to draw from. Rockwell’s success as a painter came from his appreciation for everyday American scenes, in particular, the warmth and charm of small-town life.
At the time, many critics dismissed Rockwell’s paintings for not having any real artistic merit. Obviously, though, the public did not agree. His paintings depicted an idealistic, small-town America with a simple charm and peaceful tranquility. His reasons for painting what he did were grounded in the world that was around him. “Maybe as I grew up and found the world wasn’t the perfect place I had thought it to be, I unconsciously decided that if it wasn’t an ideal world, it should be, and so painted only the ideal aspects of it,” he once said.
Still, Rockwell didn’t completely ignore the issues of the day. In 1943, inspired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he painted a series entitled ‘Four Freedoms’. The paintings, which appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post, proved to be incredibly popular. ‘Four Freedoms’ raised more than $130 million toward the war effort.
In 1953, the Rockwells moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where the artist would spend the rest of his life. Following the death of his second wife in 1959, Rockwell married his third wife, Molly Punderson. With Molly’s encouragement, Rockwell ended his relationship with the Post and began doing covers for Look. His focus had also changed, as he turned more of his attention to the social issues facing the country. Much of the work centered on themes concerning poverty, racial issues, and the Vietnam War. In 1969, Rockwell’s painting of the imprint of Neil Armstrong’s left foot on the surface of the moon was featured on the cover of Look magazine.
In the final decade of his life, he created a trust to ensure his artistic legacy would thrive long after his passing. His work became the centerpiece of what is now called the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. In 1977—one year before his death—Rockwell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Gerald Ford. In his speech Ford said, “Artist, illustrator and author, Norman Rockwell has portrayed the American scene with unrivaled freshness and clarity. Insight, optimism and good humor are the hallmarks of his artistic style. His vivid and affectionate portraits of our country and ourselves have become a beloved part of the American tradition.”
Norman Rockwell died at his home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, on November 8, 1978.