Norman Rockwell: Images of the Heart
The story of a Master, a Magazine and an American Mythology
By: J. Marlando
I’ve written about quite a few artists over the years. For one thing, once upon a time, I was an art reviewer and critic so I’ve had an interest in art and artists most of my life. I have never written about Norman Rockwell, however, or his art. This was not an accident. Way back when I was working for a monthly magazine I remember telling my editor that I wanted to review Norman Rockwell’s work. The idea was rejected because the editor said, “Norman Rockwell was not a ‘real’ artist. He was an illustrator so I went on to write about some other painter. (Interestingly enough: Norman Rockwell referred to himself as an illustrator. Very humble of him, I’ve always thought).
Anyway, that had not been the first time that I had heard this about Rockwell; that he wasn’t an “artiste” but a mere commercial painter. The truth of course is that all the old masters were “commercial artists” with few exceptions. Certainly Michelangelo and Leonardo De Vinci were “commercial artists” primarily mirroring the people and places of their own heritages and of their own times. Norman Rockwell awakened the America people to their heritage or…at least aspects of it, a topic we’ll discuss on a later page.
Rockwell became most famous as the cover artist for the magazine, The Saturday Evening Post. We were extremely poor when I was a boy growing up in the late 1940s and early 1950s but we almost always had two magazines in our house: The Saturday Evening Post and Reader’s Digest.
My Grandmother had a stack of “old” magazines lying around and those included covers done by Norman Rockwell. Oh, if only we’d had some foresight we would have kept those gems. Instead, some of them were probably used to start the morning fire in the old, iron cook stove. Anyway, everyone in my family just like so many other families across America loved The Saturday Evening Post and Readers Digest. Those magazines were as much a part of the country back then as mom and apple pie.
In any case, what this artist did was to capture the American myth; the way most Americans loved imagining themselves and their heritage to be; a simple, fun-loving, honest folk and a people of morality and character. Indeed, Rockwell did not paint many contemporary works but rather what were affectionately called, “the good old days.” The good old days have nearly always been the great mythology since in actuality they never really existed. They were instead mere images of the heart.
We will of course be talking a lot about those images in this review but first let’s talk about the artist, himself. In many ways he was a genius with the common touch; a common American man with a most uncommon artistic talent.
Norman The Man
“Some people have been kind enough to call me a fine artist. I've always called myself an illustrator. I'm not sure what the difference is. All I know is that whatever type of work I do, I try to give it my very best. Art has been my life.
Norman Rockwell was born in what a great many call the good old days—the romantic 1890s. He was born on February 3, 1894 in New York City. New York City, incidentally, would have looked and felt much like this then:
Norman’s earliest ancestor was John Rockwell who came to America from Somerset, England around 1635 aboard a ship by the name of Hopewell
Norman transferred from high school to the Chase Art School at the age of 14. Ob
Only 19 years old, the young Norman’s landed his first paid cover work. It was for Boy’s Life, the Boy Scout publication in 1913 as seen here
When World War I came along he tried to enlist in the Navy—he didn’t weigh enough so he went home and stuffed himself on bananas, sweets and liquids—he signed up the very next day and was accepted. His talent was recognized, however, and he became a military artist.
Then, in 1916 Norman submitted paintings (some call them illustrations) to the Saturday Evening Post. They were immediately accepted and the man destined to be America’s most beloved artist had found a home. He would work for the Post from 1916 through 1963. Among his last paintings to be on a Post cover was an inspired painting of Jack Kennedy, a man that Rockwell deeply admired.
The year that Norman started with The Post, he married a lovely young lady by the name of Irene O’Connor. Indeed she modeled for this painting which became the cover for The Literary Digest in 1921:
They divorced in 1930.
As an aside, I offer that most artists—painters, dancers, actors and so forth—are or can be difficult to live with. Indeed, as a person who has literally worked with thousands of artistic people as a theater producer/director for many years, I have had a lot of past experience with creative minds and the temperamental: While I never met Norman Rockwell personally, I know from long experience that a great many artistic people (there are exceptions) live more in their art than in the world that most people name “reality.” That is, many people in the artistic fields from music to painting live outside the everyday life in a subjective world that is simply not the same so-called objective world that ordinary people generally live in. This is not a topic to go very far in here but it is said that the famous psychologist Eric Erikson
After the divorce Rockwell was depressed so he moved to Alhambra, California to spend some time with his old friend Victor Clyde Forsythe. During his stay in Alhambra he completed some wonderful works not excluding his incredible Doctor and the Doll painting as seen here:
It was also during this time that he met Mary Barstow, a school teacher that lived in the area. They married and returned to New York together. They had three children together—Jarvis, Thomas and Peter. It is said that neither Rockwell nor his wife were very religious but they nevertheless had their three children baptized as Episcopalians.
During the World War II years Rockwell created his famous Four Freedoms, inspired by a speech made by Franklin D. Roosevelt
The Four Freedoms canvas was a tremendous success, not only published by the Saturday Evening Post but exhibited by Treasure Department to help promote war bonds. At this same time, disaster struck: A fire in his Arlington studio destroyed many of his paintings and his wonderful collection of costumes and props; some were historic treasures. The family moved from Vermont to Stockbridge, Massachusetts. This was in 1953 and the move was more complex than it appeared to be:
The motive for moving to Massachusetts was so Mrs. Rockwell could acquire treatments at the Austen Riggs Center probably for her depression and alcoholism—this is where Norman met Doctor Eric Erikson talked about in an above paragraph.
Mary Rockwell died a few years later in 1959 of an unexpected heart attack.
The artist married for the third time in 1961 to Mary (Molly) Punderson an English teacher. Only two years later, in 1963, he walked away from the Saturday Evening Post ending a virtual lifetime relationship and went to work for Look magazine. In 1977 he had been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in America. In the following year, 1978, he died in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He was 84 years old.
Interpreting the Artist and His Art
It was no fluke or accident that Norman Rockwell walked away from the Post: During the 1960s the artist became more and more political in his paintings and Ken Stuart, then the art director at the Saturday Evening Post began turning down Rockwell’s work for front covers. The artist, it seems, had left the charm of “the good old days” behind and now then painting commentary on his special interests such as poverty, protesting the Vietnam War and civil rights which is seen in this dramatic painting:
Over his incredible career Norman Rockwell was, by and large, rejected artistically by art critics. They thought his work was far too sentimental and idealistic to be celebrated as fine art. Here are some typical examples of what they were talking about—a few of my personal favorites:
There are just so many to enjoy and contemplate. The question remains, however, was he a fine artist or perhaps a mere sophisticated cartoonist and illustrator?
I have thought about this for a great many years not only as a Rockwell fan but as an ex-art reviewer and critic.
I believe that one critic called his work “bourgeois” and another “non-consequential” and yet another described his work as “sentimental portrayals of American Life.” What Norman Rockwell captured, however, was deeply psychological and profound; he painted images of the heart. That is, he captured exactly how Americans like to think of themselves: as a simple, hard-working, faithful people as depicted here:
Norman Rockwell captured the ideals of childhood, of motherhood, of labor, of family life and of Americanism itself. Just study this Rockwell calendar art for a moment or two
As for a showing of his master craft as creator of fine art—study these portraits for a few moments:
A Coal Miner
In each is a capturing of the very spirit of these individuals. But again, even in his masterful portrait work he has painted the “ideal.” And so, in this way, Norman Rockwell did paint idealism as opposed to stark realism and yes, perhaps the myth of Americans more than Americans themselves:
While I have no connection whatsoever with the Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts
As one critic said, his art was—bourgeois. I think that critic missed the very essence of Rockwell’s work, it was, beyond all else, a portrait of American idealism—not so much of who we are but what we would like to be.
Major Reference: Wikipedia
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