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.

Last Surviving Person of Interest in Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist to Be Released From Prison

Federal Bureau of Investigation, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Federal Bureau of Investigation, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Almost exactly 29 years ago, two men disguised as police officers weaseled their way into Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and started removing prized artworks from the wall. They made off with 13 famous paintings and sculptures, representing a value of more than $500 million. It remains the largest property theft in U.S. history, but no one has ever been charged in connection with the heist.

Now, as Smithsonian reports, the last living person who may have first-hand knowledge about the heist will be released from prison this Sunday after serving 54 months for an unrelated crime. Robert (Bobby) Gentile, an 82-year-old mobster who was jailed for selling a gun to a known murderer, has been questioned by authorities in the past. In 2010, the wife of the late mobster Robert (Bobby) Guarente told investigators she had seen her husband give several of the artworks in question to Gentile—a good friend of Guarente’s—eight years prior.

A 2012 raid of Gentile’s home also revealed a list of black market prices for the stolen items. Previous testimony from other mob associates—coupled with the fact that Gentile had failed a polygraph test when he was questioned about the art heist—suggest Gentile might know more about the crime than he has let on. For his part, though, Gentile says he is innocent and knows nothing about the art or the heist.

The FBI announced in 2013 that it knew who was responsible for the museum heist, but would not reveal their names because they were dead. Still, the whereabouts of the artworks—including prized paintings by Rembrandt, Manet, Vermeer, and Degas—remain unknown. The museum is offering a $10 million reward to anyone who can provide information leading to “the recovery of all 13 works in good condition," according to the museum's website. A separate $100,000 reward will be provided for the return of an eagle finial that was used by Napoleon’s Imperial Guard.

[h/t Smithsonian]

9 Colors Named After People

Alice Roosevelt—for whom Alice Blue is named—in 1902
Alice Roosevelt—for whom Alice Blue is named—in 1902
Frances Benjamin Johnston, Library of Congress/Wikimedia // Public Domain

Throughout history, a variety of famous people have lent their names to shades of brilliant blue, shocking purple, grassy green, muddy brown, and other hues. While many of these figures are artists who were known for using or developing these hues, other color eponyms come from the scientists who invented them or those who loved to wear them. Consider this list the place where the history books meet the artist’s palette.

1. Alice Blue

A pale azure blue named for Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, who was known for wearing gowns of the color and thus sparking a trend for it. (She was also known for smoking in public and other forms of mischief-making, leading her father to declare: “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.”) Her ice-blue dresses inspired the song "Alice Blue Gown" by Joseph McCarthy and Harry Tierney, which premiered in the 1919 Broadway musical Irene. ("I once had a gown that was almost new / Oh, the daintiest thing, it was sweet Alice Blue / With little forget-me-nots placed here and there / When I had it on, I walked on air.")

2. Yves Klein Blue

Visitors look at 'Monochrome Blue, without title' (1960) by French artist Yves Klein
Visitors look at Monochrome Blue, without title (1960) by French artist Yves Klein
THOMAS LOHNES/AFP/Getty Images

The artist Yves Klein was interested in art as transcendence, and he’s perhaps best known for painting monochromes in a brilliant ultramarine meant to suggest the infinity of sea and sky. (As Klein once explained, "Blue has no dimensions, it is beyond dimensions.") In 1960, he registered a formula for the color—known as IKB, or International Klein Blue—with the French government; the formula relied on ultramarine pigment mixed with a synthetic resin that wouldn't dilute the color.

During his “blue period,” Klein exhibited only blue paintings and objects, releasing a thousand and one blue balloons into the sky in Paris to celebrate one show, and serving gin, Cointreau, and blue-dye cocktails at another. Don’t copy that last idea, mixologists: everyone who drank them peed blue for days.

3. Titian Red

Visitors look at a painting by Renaissance master Titian in Rome
Visitors look at a painting by Renaissance master Titian in Rome
GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

A person with red hair is sometimes said to be a Titian, after the great 16th century Venetian painter who was notably fond of painting redheads. (Examples of such paintings include Bacchus and Ariadne and Noli me Tangere, now in London's National Gallery.) In the 1960s, redheaded Barbie dolls were officially known as “Titians.” More loosely, the term has come to mean any orange-red color, although people seem to love to debate exactly what shades count.

4. Scheele's Green

Svenska Familj-Journalen, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Arsenic-based green pigments were all the rage in the 19th century, coloring everything from hosiery to hats to children’s toys. The first such pigment on the scene was Scheele’s Green, discovered by Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele in 1775. The vibrant yellow-green hue caught on, especially after it was discovered that arsenic also produced a variety of other greens, from deep emerald to pale peridot. Although Scheele and others knew how toxic these pigments were, that didn't stop the colors from being used for clothing, candles, papers, playing cards, book-bindings, and sometimes even food. In perhaps the most famous example of its use, arsenic green wallpaper graced Napoleon’s last bathroom while he suffered through his exile on St. Helena, and some think the fumes caused by his long baths may have been what killed him.

5. Isabelline

José Reynaldo da Fonseca, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

If true, this color's origin story has to be the most off-putting in history. Once used to describe the pale champagne color of certain horse coats and bird feathers, the term Isabella-colored or isabelline is said (by no less than Isaac D'Israeli's 1791 Curiosities of Literature) to come from Isabel of Austria, the devoted daughter of Philip II of Spain.

Supposedly, when Spain laid siege to the city of Ostend in 1601, Isabella vowed not to change her undergarments until the city was taken. She expected a speedy victory, but much to her dismay (and presumably that of everyone around her), the fighting continued for three years before Spain won.

The Oxford English Dictionary dismisses this origin story, noting that Isabella as a color is first noted in 1600, a year before the siege began. But linguist Michael Quinion notes that accounts in French, German, Spanish and Italian (where isabelline has a similar color meaning) refer to the earlier Queen Isabella of Castile (1451-1504) and the siege of Granada—which means the story might just be true, even if it's about a different Isabella and a different set of 7-month-old dirty underwear.

6. Fuchsia

Heinrich Füllmaurer, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Here's a more pleasant etymology: The vivid red-purple of fuchsia, the color, comes from fuchsia, the flower, which is in turn named for 16th-century German botanist Leonhart Fuchs. (His last name, by the way, comes from the German word for "fox.") And if you think fuchsia and magenta are the same color, you're closer than you might think: Magenta was originally an aniline dye named fuchsine, named after the fuchsia flower. The name was changed in 1859, the year it was patented, in honor of the French victory at the Battle of Magenta. That apparently helped the dye become a stunning success.

7. Vandyke Brown

Anthony van Dyck, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep, warm, transparent brown was made with a high concentration of organic matter (basically: actual dirt), and was popular with the Old Masters. It was named for the innovative Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck, who often used the color in his paintings, and who also lent his name to an early photographic printing process—which also produced a brown color, but did not actually involve dirt.

8. Perkin's Mauve

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Like so many scientific discoveries, the invention of synthetic dyes happened by accident. In 1856, chemistry student William Henry Perkin, then only 18, was trying to find a new way to make quinine (a popular treatment for malaria, and the ingredient that still gives tonic water its slightly bitter taste). The experiment didn't quite work as planned, but Perkin noticed some purple sludge left over in his flask after rinsing it with alcohol, and realized its potential.

His instincts were good: After Perkin patented his creation and began mass-producing it, the color swept England, becoming so popular that the magazine Punch condemned an outbreak of “the mauve measles.” The color was originally called aniline purple by Perkin, as well as Perkin's purple or Perkin’s violet. The mauve part of “Perkin’s mauve” came a few years later thanks to the French, who named it after their word for the mallow flower.

9. Hooker's Green

Thomas Herbert Maguire, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The warm, grassy "Hooker's Green" is named for botanical illustrator William Hooker (1779–1832), who created a special pigment just to convey the exact green of leaves.

Bonus: Mummy Brown

A close-up of an Egyptian mummy head
A close-up of an Egyptian mummy head
iStock.com/izanbar

OK, it’s not a color named after one person, but a color named after many people—many dead people. First made in the 16th and 17th centuries, but a special favorite of the 19th century painters, this rich brown pigment was created by mixing both human and feline mummy crumbles with white pitch and myrrh. (Although we tend to think of them as protected antiquities today, people in centuries past often considered mummies just another natural resource.)

In part because of its curious components, the pigment wasn’t the most stable in the world, and it fell out of favor once its origin story became better known. According to one biography, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones gave his tube of Mummy Brown a funeral in his garden when he discovered where it came from. The pigment was sold into the 20th century, although if you see the name “mummy brown” used today, rest assured it contains no actual corpses. Probably.

A version of this list first ran in 2016.

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