15 Colorful Facts About Norman Rockwell

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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. Nearly 40 years after his passing, Rockwell is still embraced as one of the most adored painters of his era. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the artist.

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.

Howard Pyle is 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 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 requirements. 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, where the young artist was recruited as an illustrator for the Charleston Naval Yard’s official periodical, Afloat and Ashore.

4. ROCKWELL PRODUCED 323 COVERS FOR THE SATURDAY EVENING POST.

Perhaps no association between an artist and a magazine has ever been more widely celebrated than Rockwell's work with The Saturday Evening Post. 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 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 sent the originals on tour, 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 SPECIAL THANK YOU.

In 1939, BSA officials handed Rockwell a Silver Buffalo, the organization’s highest award,  before 3000 onlookers at Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria hotel. 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 years old.

7. ALL THREE OF HIS WIVES WERE SCHOOLTEACHERS.


1957's "After the Prom." James Vaughan via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

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. HE STRUGGLED WITH DEPRESSION.

Optimism may radiate from his paintings, but Rockwell’s days weren’t always so carefree. His second wife's alcohol 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 then-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 said.

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,” said Bridges.

12. STEVEN SPIELBERG AND GEORGE LUCAS ARE BIG FANS.

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 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 THE OFFICIAL STATE ARTIST OF MASSACHUSETTS.

In 2008, the Bay State bestowed this posthumous honor upon Rockwell, who spent his last-quarter century living in the Berkshires.

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.

Bob Dylan's Lyrics, Poetry, and Prose Showcased at Chicago's American Writers Museum

A collection of Bob Dylan poems that was auctioned off by Christie's in 2005.
A collection of Bob Dylan poems that was auctioned off by Christie's in 2005.
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Like a Rolling Stone, Tangled Up in Blue, Blowin’ in the Wind, and The Times They Are a-Changin’ are among Bob Dylan’s best songs, but the 77-year-old singer’s writing isn’t limited to lyrics. Dylan has also penned poems, prose, an autobiography, and a nearly four-hour movie (that got terrible reviews).

An ongoing showcase at Chicago’s American Writers Museum is paying homage to Dylan the writer. The "Bob Dylan: Electric" exhibit, which will remain on view though April 30, 2019, highlights dozens of items from Dylan’s expansive career.

“The world knows Bob Dylan as a prolific songwriter,” museum president Carey Cranston said in a statement. “'Bob Dylan: Electric’ gives the public a chance to see how his writing shaped more than just American music, but American literature as a whole.”

The period covers Dylan’s “electric” career, beginning with the time he made his electric guitar debut at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The exact instrument he played at the festival—a 1964 sunburst Fender Stratocaster—is naturally one of the items on display.

Visitors can also check out Dylan’s personal copy of The Catcher in the Rye, which he read in the summer of 1961. He jotted down notes and drew doodles in the back of the book, including a bottle of rye and the words “good book.” (Interestingly enough, a talent agent approached Dylan the following year and asked if he’d play Holden Caulfield in a movie adaptation of the book. For better or worse, that never came to fruition.)

Dylan’s writing was recognized with a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. At the time, the committee's decision to award a songwriter rather than a novelist was a controversial one. The New York Times dubbed it a “disappointing choice,” while Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh (author of Trainspotting) was a little more blunt, calling it “an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

Nonetheless, Dylan accepted the award, eventually releasing a video detailing his literary influences. Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey are just a few of the singer-songwriter’s many inspirations.

Vinnie Ream: The Teen Who Met With Abraham Lincoln for 30 Minutes Every Day

Library of Congress // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Library of Congress // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Some of the most important people in the world have trouble getting even a few minutes of the president’s time. But in 1864, 17-year-old Lavinia “Vinnie” Ream managed to steal half an hour with Abraham Lincoln every day—for five months.

Ream made a name for herself as an artist at a young age. Word of the teen prodigy’s painting prowess quickly spread, and in 1863, Missouri Congressman James Rollins introduced her to sculptor Clark Mills. Through Mills, Ream discovered her talents included molding clay.

After creating small, medallion-sized likenesses of General Custer and many Congressmen, including Thaddeus Stevens, several senators commissioned Ream to create a marble bust—and this was just over a year after she had picked up the skill. The senators allowed Ream to choose her subject, and she picked the president—Abraham Lincoln.

Ream's friends in the Senate personally asked Lincoln to pose for the sculpture, but he declined. After hearing that she was a struggling artist from a Midwestern background not dissimilar to his own, however, Lincoln relented. “He granted me sittings for no other reason than that I was in need,” she later wrote. “Had I been the greatest sculptor in the world I am quite sure I would have been refused.”

Not only did the president agree to the sitting, he gave her a half-hour of his time every day for five months—no small sum of time for a man in such demand. “It seemed that he used this half-hour as a time for relaxation, for he always left instructions that no one was to be admitted during that time,” Ream said. “He seemed to find a strange sort of companionship in being with me, although we talked but little.” He occasionally talked about his son Willie, who had died two years before. The stories sometimes moved him to tears, and he told Vinnie that she reminded him of Willie. Lincoln "never told a funny story to me. He rarely smiled," Ream later recalled.

After Lincoln's fateful night at Ford's Theatre, Congress hired Ream to create a memorial statue of the fallen president, making her the youngest artist—and the first woman—to receive a commission from the U.S. government.

Though she had already proved that she could create a remarkable likeness of Lincoln in bust form, not everyone on the commission was convinced she would be up to the task of sculpting a full-length version. “Having in view the youth and inexperience of Miss Ream, and I will go further, and say, having in view her sex, I shall expect a complete failure in the execution of this work,” Senator Jacob Merritt Howard said.

But Ream had the last laugh: Her work still graces the Capitol Rotunda today.

Vinnie Ream's sculpture of Abraham Lincoln still stands in the Capital Rotunda
USCapitol via Flickr // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

This article originally ran in 2016.

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