America's Most Popular Artist

By Thomas, Sarah | Contemporary Review, May 1994 | Go to article overview

America's Most Popular Artist


Thomas, Sarah, Contemporary Review


THIS year marks the centenary of the birth of American's most popular artist. But you should not look forward to any large-scale retrospective of his work. indeed, you need not anticipate any public celebration at all on his account -- except in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where he lived for the last twenty-five years of his life(*), and where a museum devoted entirely to his work opened in mid-1993. popular as he is, his paintings are rarely on show in any of America's major art galleries. Which is not to say that they do not feature in their collections. They do, in fact, in quite a few -- including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Brooklyn Museum and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. it's just that the museums and galleries that own them are not confident about having them on permanent display. We are talking, of course, about Norman Rockwell. So what is going on?

Norman Percevel Rockwell was born on Manhattan's Upper West Side on 3 February 1894, and spent most of his formative years there -- an interesting beginning, perhaps, for someone who subsequently came to be identified so closely with small town America. His father, Thomas Waring Rockwell, the manager of the New York office of a textile business, was much concerned with his own and his family's cultural improvement -- he was given to reading aloud at meals, and in his spare time used, significantly perhaps, to copy illustrations from magazines. Nancy Hill Rockwell, Norman's mother, was the daughter of Thomas Hill, an English painter who settled in the States in the late 1860s, after the Civil War. His style was inherited, or shared, in at least one respect by his grandson: 'he painted in great detail', Rockwell was to say of him.

With such a background, it was not surprising that early on Rockwell manifested a talent for drawing -- a talent which stood him in good stead at school, where, unable to compete physically, he would draw to entertain, and thus retain the respect of, his companions. From his early teens he was set on becoming a painter, and he enrolled, while still at school, in the Chase School of Fine Art and Design. Dropping out of school in his sophomore year, and taking part-time jobs to earn money, he enrolled full-time first at the National Academy School and then, in 1910, at the Art Students League.

The next few years show an astonishing record of success -- at sixteen Rockwell got his first commission, at seventeen he illustrated a book for the first time (Tell Me Why Stories), in the following year he was able to rent his own studio, and he became art director of Boys' Life when he was only nineteen. Then, in 1916, when he was just twenty-two, he was commissioned by the Saturday Evening Post to produce a certain number of covers a year -- the first, on the issue of 20 May 1916, was a delightful vignette of a discomfited eleven-year-old, besuited and bowler-hatted, pushing his infant sibling in a pram, to the amusement and bemusement of two other boys on their way to play baseball.

Rockwell remained a freelance all his life. When he first began to work for the Post he was also contributing to a large number of other magazines, among them Collier's, Life, The Literary Digest and Popular Science, and by and large he continued to spread himself in this way. In addition to his contributions to these and similar magazines, there was the work he did for advertising companies, and the justly admired illustrations he provided for a new edition of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. But for close on fifty years his primary commitment was to the Post, for which he produced the covers that found their way into millions of homes throughout the country and won him his enormous popularity. In fact, there was no single reason that the association ended when it did, in 1963. Rather it was a gradual process, ending in mutual recognition that Rockwell, whose views were becoming increasingly liberal, and the magazine had moved apart politically. …

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