Painter Norman Rockwell is associated with all things homey and heartwarming. But art does not always imitate life.
As ubiquitous and appealing as Norman Rockwell’s works were in the 20th century, not everyone considered them “art.” Too sentimental, too small town, too appealing, not enough gravitas, some said of the more than 4,000 magazine covers, calendars, catalogs, posters, playing cards and murals Rockwell produced during his career.
But in 1999, art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote in ArtNews: “Rockwell is terrific. It’s become too tedious to pretend he isn’t.” That was 20 years after Rockwell’s death in 1978 — 35 years ago today. The recognition and validation was a long time coming. The Solomon Guggenheim Museum in New York held a Rockwell exhibition in 2001. One of Rockwell’s paintings, Breaking Home Ties, sold at auction for $15.4 million in 2006. Masses of enthusiastic viewers crowded museums in 12 cities on a well-received United States tour of Rockwell’s work in 2008.
A new Rockwell biography—American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell by Deborah Solomon—was released last month. In December, seven of his paintings will be auctioned by Sotheby’s. According to The New York Times one of them—Saying Grace—could bring in at least $15 million.
Saying Grace was just one of 323 Saturday Evening Post covers by Rockwell—the first ran in 1916—over a span of 47 years. Other popular covers include Rosie the Riveter, The Problem We All Live With, and the Four Freedoms series based on President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 speech. Rockwell reportedly said in 1917, “I couldn’t read a newspaper without finding an idea for a cover.”
Norman Percevel Rockwell was born on Feb. 3, 1894, in New York City to Jarvis Waring Rockwell and Anne Mary “Nancy” Rockwell. At 14, talented and confident in his ability to draw, he studied at the Chase School of Art before moving on to the National Academy of Design and then the Art Students League where such artists as Georgia O’Keeffe, Maurice Sendak, Jackson Pollock and Alexander Calder honed their creativity.
One of the ironies of Rockwell’s paintings and the adjective “Rockwell-esque” that has come to mean homey and heartwarming, is that his art did not imitate his life. The new biography explores “the relationship between the artist’s despairing personality and his genius for reflecting American’s brightest hopes,” according to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
“Rockwell would have been the first to tell you that the pictures he painted were not meant to be taken as a documentary history of American life during his time on earth, and least of all as a record of his life.” David Kamp wrote in a 2009 Vanity Fair article. Rockwell himself wrote: “The view of life I communicate in my pictures excludes the sordid and ugly. I paint life as I would like it to be.” Kamp described Rockwell as “a child of Manhattan’s Upper West Side … raised in a series of apartments as the younger son of a downwardly mobile couple.” Rockwell flatly stated later in his life that “he was never close to his parents, nor could he even remember much about them.”
Rockwell married three times. His first marriage ended in divorce after almost 15 years. His second wife and the mother of his three sons died suddenly of a heart attack. He married his third wife in 1961.
According to Kamp, it was this liberal activist wife, Mary Leete “Molly” Punderson, who encouraged him to put a more current events spin on his “pictures,” as he called them. He received renewed attention for the issue-oriented work he did for Look magazine after he stopped doing covers for The Saturday Evening Post. The Problem We All Live With, for example, shows a young African-American girl, Ruby Bridges, being escorted to school by two white federal marshals on the first day of court-ordered desegregation in New Orleans.
Rockwell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 for his “vivid and affectionate portraits of our country.” He died the following year on Nov. 8, 1978 of emphysema at age 84.
Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called “Living with Grief.”