To millions, Norman Rockwell's name carries the warmth of nostalgia. With humor, candor, and an incredible eye for detail, he captured small-town Americana as no artist ever had before. Born 123 years ago today, Rockwell is now embraced as arguably the most adored painter of his era.
1. HE RECEIVED HIS FIRST COMMISSION AS A TEENAGER.
Rockwell’s career got off to a meteoric start. At age 14, this Manhattan native began taking classes through the New York School of Art. Within the next year, he joined the esteemed Art Students League, an organization which also boasts such icons as Georgia O’Keeffe and Maurice Sendak as alumni. Rockwell hadn’t even turned 16 when he received his first paid commission: a set of four Christmas cards requested by a neighbor.
After that little milestone, the artist would tackle his first major assignment in 1912. At just 18, Rockwell was hired to paint a dozen illustrations for the children’s book Tell Me Why: Stories about Mother Nature by Charles H. Caudy. This $150 gig helped set up a steady job as a staff artist and eventual art director for Boys' Life magazine, where he’d begin working before the year was out.
2. ROCKWELL’S BIGGEST INSPIRATION WAS PAINTER HOWARD PYLE.
Pyle’s sometimes known as “the father of American magazine illustration.” Appropriately, Rockwell—who became a world-famous magazine cover artist—considered him his personal "hero." Pyle wrote and illustrated several children’s books, many of which involved swashbuckling pirates. These buccaneers utterly captivated Rockwell, who later saluted them by throwing a Pyle-esque pirate into his 1959 painting Family Tree.
3. THE U.S. NAVY TURNED HIM AWAY—AT LEAST TO BEGIN WITH.
Once the U.S. entered World War I, Rockwell tried to join the Navy, which initially rejected him on the grounds of being 17 pounds underweight. Disappointed but resolute, Rockwell bulked up by eating bananas and donuts, eventually gaining enough mass to meet the Navy’s approval. His first military assignment involved painting insignias on airplanes at an Irish base. However, after shoving off for Europe, Rockwell’s ship was diverted to South Carolina. Down in the Palmetto State, he was recruited as an illustrator for the Charleston Naval Yard’s official periodical, Afloat and Ashore.
4. IN TOTAL, ROCKWELL PRODUCED 323 COVER PAINTINGS FOR THE SATURDAY EVENING POST.
Perhaps no association between an artist and a magazine has ever been more widely celebrated than this one. Rockwell’s work first graced the publication’s cover on May 20, 1916. He’d continue to supply the Post with memorable paintings until 1963.
5. THE ARMY USED HIS FOUR FREEDOMS SERIES AS AN EFFECTIVE FUNDRAISING TOOL.
On January 6, 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave an historic State of the Union address. With the axis powers ominously looming, he held that everyone in the world deserved to enjoy freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
The president’s "four freedoms" address really struck a chord with Rockwell. Inspired, he created a quartet of paintings that portrayed these ideals in action. Today, the artist’s Four Freedoms series is one of his best-known projects. After these paintings were published in The Saturday Evening Post, the government toured the originals, enabling some 1.1 million people to view them. In the process, Rockwell’s four mini-masterpieces helped Uncle Sam sell nearly $133 million worth of war bonds.
6. THE BOY SCOUTS OF AMERICA GAVE ROCKWELL A VERY SPECIAL THANK YOU IN 1939.
Before 3000 onlookers at Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, BSA officials handed Rockwell a Silver Buffalo, the organization’s highest award. By that point, between his early job at Boys' Life and his continued Post covers, Rockwell had been painting heroic scouts on canvasses for the better part of three decades. From start to finish, his professional relationship with scouting lasted 64 years—Rockwell’s last BSA-commissioned illustration, The Spirit of ’76, was finished when he was 82.
7. ALL THREE OF HIS WIVES WERE SCHOOLTEACHERS.
Norman Rockwell definitely had a type. Marriage number one was to Irene O’Connor, a boarding house instructor and occasional model for his paintings. Wed in 1916, the couple split 14 years later. Then came Mary Barstow, a grade-school teacher who had three sons with Rockwell. After her death in 1959, he settled down once more, this time with retired educator Molly Punderson.
8. ROCKWELL STRUGGLED WITH DEPRESSION.
Optimism may radiate from his paintings, but Rockwell’s days weren’t always so carefree. His second wife's alcohol abuse problem forced the family to relocate from Arlington, Vermont to Stockbridge, Massachusetts. There, she received regular—and expensive—therapy from psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. An immigrant from Germany, Erikson also conducted numerous sessions with Rockwell, who was prone to enter states of deep depression.
9. HE RECEIVED THE PRESIDENTIAL MEDAL OF FREEDOM IN 1977.
At the ceremony, Gerald Ford praised the 83-year-old Rockwell as an “artist, illustrator, and author [whose] vivid and affectionate portraits of our country and ourselves have become a beloved part of the American tradition.”
10. THE GOLDEN RULE IS NOW ON DISPLAY AT THE UNITED NATIONS.
One of Rockwell’s most poignant paintings, 1961’s The Golden Rule, shows an international and multi-racial crowd standing in unison behind the words “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Rockwell later said that, prior to creating this piece, he’d “been reading up on comparative religion. The thing is that all major religions have the Golden Rule in common. … Not always the same words, but the same meaning.”
To celebrate the United Nations’ 40th anniversary, then-First Lady Nancy Reagan presented its Manhattan headquarters with a large mosaic version of Rockwell’s The Golden Rule. Nowadays, it’s a much-admired fixture there. “[At] virtually any hour, you will find tourists, delegates and diplomats marveling before it,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says.
11. ONE OF HIS PAINTINGS VISITED THE WHITE HOUSE IN 2011.
Created for Look magazine, the main subject of The Problem We All Live With (1963) is 6-year-old Ruby Bridges. On November 14, 1960, she began attending a newly integrated elementary school in New Orleans. Given the hostile environment, U.S. Marshals were instructed to escort her.
In 1975, The Problem We All Live With became the first painting to be bought by Stockbridge’s Norman Rockwell Museum. Since then, however, it’s seen a bit of travel. Between June and October 2011, the painting was put on display in a West Wing hallway at the White House. With President Barack Obama at her side, Bridges herself was able to go and view it there.
“Every time I see it, I think about the fact that I was an innocent child that knew absolutely nothing about what was happening that day,” says Bridges, who has served as a Rockwell Museum board member.
12. STEVEN SPIELBERG AND GEORGE LUCAS ARE HUGE FANS OF THE ARTIST.
Both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg own impressive collections of authentic Rockwell illustrations. Apparently, there’s a bit of a friendly competition going on as well. When Spielberg learned that Lucas owned a genuine Rockwell oil painting, he decided to up the ante. “I copied [him] and got a Rockwell,” Spielberg said in 2010, “I went out and got a bigger Rockwell!”
Particularly impressive to the Star Wars creator is Rockwell’s mastery of visual narratives. “He was able to sum up the story and make you want to read the story, but actually understand who the people were, what their motives were, everything in one little frame,” Lucas said.
In July 2010, the two directors lent over 50 Rockwell paintings and sketches to the Smithsonian American Art Museum as part of a temporary exhibit called “Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg,” which ran until January 2011.
13. ONE OF HIS PAINTINGS RECENTLY SOLD FOR NEARLY $50 MILLION IN 2013.
Saying Grace depicts a boy and an older woman joining in prayer at a public restaurant. When Rockwell created it for The Saturday Evening Post in 1951, the job earned him $3500. Fast-forward to a December 2013 auction when an unidentified buyer shelled out $46 million to take it home. That sum more than tripled the previous highest price paid for a Rockwell—Breaking Home Ties had sold for $15 million in 2006.
14. HE’S BEEN NAMED THE OFFICIAL STATE ARTIST OF MASSACHUSETTS.
15. EVERY HOLIDAY SEASON, STOCKBRIDGE REENACTS AN ICONIC ROCKWELLIAN SCENE.
Rockwell once described his longtime home town as “the best of America, the best of New England.” For the record, Stockbridge loves him right back. Every year, on the first Sunday in December, the town goes to great lengths to stage a real-life copy of his 1967 oil painting Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas (Home for Christmas). For added authenticity, antique cars that perfectly match their illustrated counterparts are brought in, and thankfully, with very few exceptions, most of the buildings look much like they did in Rockwell’s day.