Artist or Illustrator?
April 30th, 2004
Art History Two
Dr Philip Mattox
Norman Rockwell began his career as an Illustrator. He would create
what he was asked to. When there was a message that needed to be portrayed
or an image that was needed to provoke a feeling Rockwell was perfect to
convey that. He became the most famous illustrator that this country has
ever seen. However Rockwell’s legacy remains as one of the greatest
artists this country has ever seen. Although only half of his career was
dedicated to creating what he wanted to create, this is the work that lives
on in infamy. It was his visions of small town life and his social
commentary that set him apart from any other artist of his time. His work
is featured all of the country, his magazine covers are not what remain but
rather his paintings.
Norman Rockwell was born in New York City in 1894. From a very young
age he always wanted to be an artist. At age 14 Rockwell enrolled in his
first art courses at The New York School of Art. He realized his talent
quickly and after only two years at the school of art he dropped out to
study art at the National Academy of design. His tenure there was short as
he opted to transfer to The Art Students League, in order to study under
Thomas Fogarty and George Bridgman. He learned many skills that he would
continue to use, as he grew as an artist however each individual taught him
something very specific. Fogarty was an illustrator and it was through him
that Rockwell would learn what was necessary for his first commercial
commissions. Bridgman was a more well rounded artist and it was from him
that Rockwell strengthened his technical skills that he was able to use for
a prosperous career.
It never took very long for Rockwell to find a lot of success. At
the young age of 16 he was already making commissions on his artwork when
he was asked to create four Christmas cards. While still in his teens he
was hired for his first steady job. Boy’s life, which was the publication
for Boy Scouts of America, hired him to be their art director (right).
This was the door that he needed in order to begin a successful career
doing freelance work for many different youth oriented publications.
When Rockwell reached the age of 21 his family moved to New Rochelle,
New York. For Norman this was an enormous opportunity because it was a
community that featured many famous artists and illustrators. Once there
Rockwell opened up his first studio with Clyde Forsythe who was a
cartoonist. It was through this studio that Rockwell started to get more
prestigious work such as Life, Literary Digest, and Country Gentleman. At
the young age of 22 Rockwell painted his first of many covers for The
Saturday Evening Post (left). This magazine was what Rockwell considered
to be the biggest platform to show his work. Throughout the rest of his
career Rockwell would paint over 300 covers for the publication.
At the same young age of 22 Rockwell married his first wife Irene
O’Conner. They would only remain married for 8 years. After his divorce
Rockwell would begin what would turn out to be his two most productive
decades being the 1930s and 40s. Pretty soon after his divorce he
remarried to a schoolteacher named Mary Barstow. Soon after their marriage
they started having children, and by 1939 the family was ready for a
change. Norman, Mary, and their three sons; Jarvis, Thomas, and Peter,
moved to Arlington Vermont. It was here where Rockwell began to focus on
the life around him and started to paint for himself. He began to step
away from the life as an illustrator.
It was in 1943 that he created one of his first non-commissioned great
pieces of artwork. President Franklin Roosevelt made and address to
congress, which spoke of the four freedoms. The four freedoms were the
Freedom of Speech, the Freedom of Worship, the Freedom of Worship, the
Freedom of Want, and the Freedom of Fear (above). His four paintings were
reproduced to be featured on four consecutive issues of the Post. They
were instant hits with the public and soon went on tour of the United
States. The tour, through the sale of war bonds, raised more then $130
million dollars for the war effort. Although 1943 brought Rockwell one of
his biggest gains as an artist he also suffered a rather substantial loss.
It was the same year that his Arlington studio was destroyed by a fire
along with many of his paintings and also a large collection of famous
costumes and props.
Rockwell decided that it was time for a change and opted to move his
family from Arlington, Vermont, to Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Only six
years after his family moved his wife, Mary Barstow Rockwell passed away
unexpectedly. It was after the death of his wife that he decided to write
his autobiography. With the help of his son Thomas, Norman wrote his book,
My Adventures as an Illustrator, in 1960. The Saturday Evening Post
published different excerpts from the novel and helped to propel the book
to a best seller. It was featured in 8 consecutive publications with the
first one featuring his Triple Self Portrait (left) on the cover. Rockwell
was now well on his way to becoming a very successful artist and not just a
In 1961 he once again remarried, this time to a retired teacher named
Molly Punderson. It seems as though his new home and his new wife pushed
him to end his 47-year association with The Saturday Evening post and begin
a new job. He started to create work for Look magazine and stayed with
them for 10 years. It was during these 10 years where he really started to
look closer look a social concern. The issues that he chose to address the
most were America’s struggle with poverty, civil rights, and the
exploration of space. While working for Look Magazine, he was really able
to create what he wanted and wasn’t restrained by any assignment.
Rockwell decided in 1973 to establish a trust to help his artistic
legacy be preserved. He donated his work to the Old Corner House
Stockbridge Historical Society, which later became the Norman Rockwell
Museum at Stockbridge. Three years later while in poor health Rockwell
decided to have his studio and all of its contents in trust to the museum.
At the age of 83 Rockwell received the highest honor that a civilian can
receive from the United States Government. He was rewarded with the
Presidential Medal of Freedom, for his “vivid and affectionate portraits of
out country.” It was this award that really helped to announce that
Rockwell had stepped away from an illustrator and had become an artist.
One year after receiving the honor he died on November 8th 1978 in his home
What is art? A question that may or may not have an answer. Norman
Rockwell had a career that was in a sense based around that question. Was
he or wasn’t he an Artist. In my opinion he was both and illustrator and
an artist. He started his career doing artwork for a commission. They
would tell Rockwell what they needed as far as an illustration and Rockwell
would paint it. His artwork wasn’t in museums or in galleries but rather
they graced the covers of different magazines. In this sense Rockwell
could never be an artist. An artist is only an artist when they have the
freedom to do as they please. Once the “artist” is forced to succumb to
the demands of a client they are no longer expressing their freedom as an
Rockwell was creating a name for himself at the same time artists like
Picasso and Pollack were becoming famous. These were the people who were
creating a buzz in the art world, not Rockwell. Rockwell was often singled
out as a phony and all he was doing was illustrating the world. One time a
student walked up to him and asked if he was Norman Rockwell. Rockwell was
at first overcome with joy because the student had recognized him. After
he replied with a yes the student responded by saying that his teacher said
Rockwell stunk. Rockwell had a hard time dealing with these types of
negative attitudes towards his work. He had recived more recognition from
the public then any artist but nearly none from the art world.Although
Rockwell was dedicated to his work, spending every single day in his
studio, he often would go through bouts of depression and self-doubt.
These bouts of self-loathing led to his major life changing decisions like
opting to move, divorce his wife, or leave a job that had been good to him
for 47 years.
For the first part of his career Rockwell considered himself an
illustrator. He really never looked for a tremendous amount of approval
from the art community because he had been gaining so much from the general
public. His auto-biography was even entitled My Life as an Illustrator”,
obviously succumbing to his role in the world. After his writing of the
book, and the death of his wife, which occurred around the same time, he
began to question his role in life.This was also the time in the art
world where people began to question the difference between “high” art and
“low” art. Before this time often artists like Rockwell would drift in-
between illustrating and creating art without seeing any boundaries or
lines to step over. All along even though Rockwell was doing covers for the
post often his true painting wasn’t coming out. His son in recent
interview said that his father would often paint the people in different
and more appealing ways then they were portrayed on the covers. Often he
would also paint a much larger painting with more social commentary in it
but the Post would crop it to their liking. Often around this time
Rockwell was painting what he was asked to and painting a story that the
post wanted him to. Even though the he did many magazine covers and
advertisements these weren’t the bulk of his work. Rockwell in his career
did nearly 4000 pieces, of those 4000 only 800 were magazine covers and 150
were advertising campaigns. He painted simply for the love of it. He
often said that the simple things in life were the best things to paint.
“The commonplaces of America are to me the richest subjects in art,”
Rockwell wrote in 1936. “Boys batting flies on vacant lots; little girls
playing jacks on the front steps; old men plodding home at twilight,
umbrellas in hand-all of these things arouse feeling in me. Common places
never become tiresome. It is we who become tired when we cease to be
curious and appreciative.”
It was later in life when not only did Rockwell begin to look at the
little things but he also started to make social commentary on what he was
looking at. He began to create things with his artwork. It was his
ability to tell stories through his artwork that attracted the general
public to him. Paintings like “Checkers” (left) were able to speak
volumes just from one simple flat piece of art. Not too many of the artist
during the time could tell such a visual story with a simple painting in
such a way that Rockwell. Rockwell always portrayed the good and the bad
in life but even the bad had a positive spin on it. He was once quoted to
say that he could not paint evil. He didn’t have it in him to portray life
in a negative way. This positive ness was something that brought him fame.
People always felt connected to his paintings and felt at ease while
looking at them.
Rockwell’s artistic visions came out through is socially aware pieces.
These were the pieces he did from his heart that affected the hearts of
people and inspired a nation. Paintings like “Rosie the Riveter” (right)
which empowered women in the work place. The woman who was the subject for
the painting said her arms never looked as big as they did when they were
painted in Rockwell’s famous painting. It was a painting during the war
that did not show the horrors of war or did not show war in general. It
showed what was happening on American soil. That was quite simply
Rockwell’s specialty, showing the simple American life. Rosie went on to
become one of the most famous images of World War 2. It dealt with a
sensitive time for the American people with a positive image. It also
helped to strengthen the more social roles of women.
Two paintings that once again dealt with social situations but through
the eyes of little girls were Rockwell’s “Girl at Mirror”, and “The Problem
We All Live With”. These two pieces were very strong social awareness
paintings but both dealt with images of little girls. This was once again
Rockwell’s artist intuition that made him realize that he could create more
emotion by dealing with everyday life through a child. “The Problem We All
Live With”, (right) was Rockwell’s look at the injustice of bigotry. He
chose to Paint the little girl who defied odds and decided to go to a white
school even though she knew she would be treated horrible for her
decisions. Rockwell could have just as easily painted a picture of a
hanging or a beating but he opted to look at a less horrific event. The
“Girl At Mirror” (left) dealt with hopes and dreams. It dealt with
everyone’s quest for something and the feeling of not knowing what is out
there for you. He dealt with this through the eyes of a child and not the
eyes of an adult. It provokes a greater feeling then it normally would
because of the image of a hopeful young girl looking into herself to find
out what she wants.
Rockwell spent a large portion of his career struggling with what he
was, an artist, or an Illustrator. There have been many debates on that
exact question. Was he a phony or was he a true artist. Rockwell painted
with such skill and such ease because it was what he loved to do. He
painted all the time, often missing his birthday dinner or Christmas
festivities. Although I do feel that Rockwell began as an Illustrator I
think he ultimately did become one of Americas greatest artists. He was
able to do something that many artists cannot do. He was able to reach
almost everyone in the America and make him or her feel like they
understood art. Although Picasso is one of the most famous artists that
the world has ever no one ever stood that they understood his art better
then they understood Rockwell. His art skills, his ability to evoke
feeling and his ability to tell a story made him what he was, a true great
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5. Oct. 2003: 152-9.
Guptil, Arthur L. Norman Rockwell: Illustrator. N.p.: Random House Value
Hennessey, Maureen H. Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People.
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