Norman Rockwell is surely the most famous American newspaper illustrator in the world. born in new york, 1894, and died in massachusetts, 1978, he is rightly called the “storyteller” of america. in fact, his works trace the history of the United States in the 20th century. Known for having produced hundreds of covers for the Saturday Evening Post magazine, he is less well known for his talents as a painter. in fact, every one of his illustrations was previously executed in painting form. Discreet and without seeking notoriety, he spoke little about his life and activities. artsper has investigated; He discovers 10 anecdotes about the most famous American illustrator in this article!
1. he is a drawing genius
Very early on, the young Norman Rockwell shows a penchant for drawing. he wants to become an artist. For this reason, at the age of 14, he entered the New York School of Art. two years later, in 1910, he left school to enter the national academy of design. he received his first commission: the illustration of four Christmas cards. In 1912, he became a student in the Art Students League. That same year, at just 18 years old, he was chosen to illustrate Carl H. Claudy’s Book Tell Me Why: Stories About Mother Nature. Even before he came of age, he was the art director for the Official Magazine of the Boy Scouts of America. In parallel, he illustrated many other youth magazines before joining the Saturday Evening Post at the age of 22 for 47 years.
2. he is an avid explorer
Norman Rockwell was, throughout his life, heavily involved in the American scouting organization, the Boy Scouts of America. already in 1912, the latter commissioned him to illustrate the boy scouts’ hiking book. His work is particularly appreciated, Rockwell was offered a position as a permanent employee to illustrate the weekly magazine Boy’s Life. six months later, he was promoted to art director. Although he left the magazine in 1917, he continued to produce illustrations for the Boy Scouts’ annual calendar from 1925 to 1976. These 64 years were his longest collaboration. As a token of its recognition, the organization awarded him the Silver Buffalo Award, the highest honor for adults, in 1939. Once a Scout, Always a Scout!
3. a hard-working perfectionist, he is a representative of hyperrealism
like a true storyteller, norman rockwell placed crucial importance on every detail of the script he sought to represent on his canvas. in fact, as an illustrator, he had to make sure that the images better reflected the texts. this meant a long technical process. To be as close as possible to reality, the artist had models pose in his studio, not knowing how to paint only with his imagination. He later used photography so that each element (object, landscape, character or facial expression) was represented in the most realistic way possible.
he used all this material to make a very precise charcoal drawing. this initial sketch was then projected onto architect’s paper vertically on an easel, using a balopticon, a kind of projector. after transferring it to paper drawing the contours, the photographs themselves were projected. then he replaced the first sketched figures with the outline of the photographic elements. once this first composition was completed, he would start all over again, drawing in more detail, refining the tones and lighting.
To transfer the final sketch to canvas, Rockwell used tracing paper or projected his photograph. for the pose of the painting, he would refer to a study, often done early in the creative process, in color and the size of the intended reproduction, but much less accurate.
a labor of love…
extremely demanding, he could spend several days on a single illustration, reworking the same section of a composition several times. finished work was sometimes even discarded. Furthermore, he regularly asked those around him to critique his work, especially to ensure the clarity of his narrative. His style, more precise than that of one of the naturalist painters, heralded photorealism. this movement consists of reproducing a photograph in the most realistic way possible.
4. patriot, he participated in the war effort putting his art at the service of American propaganda
It was not without difficulty that Norman Rockwell enlisted in the Navy as early as World War I. in fact, after a first rejection due to his small weight, he was finally recruited. Serving in the Army as a military artist, he was responsible for his base newspaper.
in the early 1940s, he returned to the service of his nation, pencils and brushes in hand! Aware of the power of the press over the population, he recorded on his covers of the Saturday night post the life of American society during the Second World War. however, they still display optimism and hedonism. In fact, Rockwell wanted, through his images, to maintain the morale of the population and encourage them to participate in the war effort, in particular through the purchase of war bonds or enlistment in the army. His character Willie Gillis, who was particularly popular, contributed greatly to this. he was a typical young American soldier that young people could easily identify with. harmless and sincere, but very willing and motivated, he is never pictured in combat or in danger. in 1946, he had his “happy ending” in his homeland.
However, beyond his activity as a press illustrator, Norman Rockwell worked directly with the state. in 1942, at the request of the us. Army Ordnance Corps, he produced a poster showing an artilleryman in need of ammunition. intended to be distributed to munitions factories, it was intended to encourage production.
5. his iconic work, the four freedoms, hardly sees the light of day
In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt made a famous speech to Congress. He expounded his vision of the postwar world based on four freedoms: freedom of expression, freedom of worship, and freedom from want and fear. Desiring to get more involved in the war effort and inspired by the speech, Rockwell wanted to illustrate these four freedoms to make them understandable to everyone. he proposed his poster idea to the usa. Army Artillery Corps. however, in the absence of sufficient resources, the us. Army rejected the offer. according to some, the US administration actually wanted to use well-known artists to fuel its propaganda instead of an illustrator.
Nonetheless, Rockwell isn’t about to give up on his project and decides to send it to the editor of the Saturday night publication. the latter accepts and, in 1943, they are published on the cover of the magazine. your success is phenomenal! then the government backtracked and proposed a partnership with the post office to mount a nationwide exhibition. the purpose of this exhibition was to promote war bonds and stamps. in fact, for every voucher purchased, a copy of all four paintings was offered. it was the most successful war bond sales campaign during the war. In addition, the US the war information office decided to print four million sets of paintings. combined with the slogan “buy war bonds”, they were widely disseminated in public institutions. With the masterpiece of him, rockwell gave the press illustration the letters of nobility from him!
6. created one of the most famous icons of feminism
patriot, that doesn’t make rockwell a conservative! on the contrary, he adapts to the changes of society and his modern mentality.
during World War II, he is aware that war is not just a matter of men. he created the character “rosie the riveter” for the saturday night post. very muscular, the young worker in overalls tramples mein kampf. an imposing riveting pistol rests on his lap. To create this strong image, Rockwell was inspired by Michelangelo’s figure of the prophet Isaiah painted in the Sistine Chapel. Above all, Rosie evokes the figure of the Virgin Mary! Auréolé, his face stands out against a background of stars, without forgetting his blue work blue that echoes the blue dress of the Blessed Virgin. thus, rockwell illustrates that all women, even housewives, had their place in mobilizing the war effort.
From a patriotic icon to a feminist icon, it became a symbol of independence, which was taken up many times by movements for women’s rights.
7. has long been discredited by the art world
during his lifetime, norman rockwell was not recognized as an artist in his own right, but only as an illustrator.
His style was referred to as “Rockwellesque”, often in a derogatory sense. depicting an idealized and sentimental, even romantic, “American way of life,” he was criticized for his particularly approving glance of his compatriots. some critics described him as a “bourgeois” painter, “kitsch” to highlight the superficiality of his creations.
However, Rockwell’s talent for moving the viewer is undeniable. In addition, when paying more attention to him, his images seem to carry the second level of reading. in fact, he manages, by the intelligence of his narration, to implicitly address more serious problems. the changes in society, the social pressures that weigh on the youth, the daily difficulties of the working class and, finally, racial segregation are themes that are evoked. more particularly late in his career, he tackled deeper issues, particularly in relation to the civil rights movement. it is only from this period that his painting begins to receive more consideration.
8. supported the civil rights movement
in the 1960s, norman rockwell joined look magazine. He then had more freedom than in Saturday night’s post to express his political convictions. His first contribution was significant due to the new, more committed tone of his illustrations. work is the problem we all experience (1964). Depicts little African American girl, Ruby Bridges, on her way to school with her recently deracialized girl. the presence of four police officers escorting her and a tomato thrown at the wall reveal the threat to the girl. the image is profoundly bold for its time. In fact, the United States was torn between, on the one hand, a persistent segregationist mentality, and, on the other hand, the growing demands of the African-American community.
The magazine received both praise and criticism from its readers. This did not stop Rockwell from continuing to support the civil rights movement. In 1965, the illustration Southern Justice deals with the murder of 3 militants of the civil rights movement by the Ku Klux Klan. Then, in 1967, in New Kids on the Block, he refocuses on America’s desegregation through the world of childhood and outlines the hope for greater tolerance and social mixing in future generations.
9. he is also a great publicist
rockwell is much less known for its advertising. however, many brands asked him to boost their image or sales. Campbell’s tomato juice, Kellogg’s cornflakes, Ford, General Motors, and Pepsi, to name just the most famous, have placed orders with him. he has also worked no less than 6 times with coca-cola. After his death, his influence on American popular culture was such that in 2015, the butterball group, a poultry producer, reused the painting freedom from want, from the four freedoms series, on their Thanksgiving turkey packages.
In addition, he has also produced promotional posters for movies and covers for novels and music albums. prolific and varied, his artistic heritage is not limited to his work for the written press.
10. the mosaic the golden rule of the united nations is a reworking of one of his illustrations
in 1985, first lady nancy reagan, on behalf of the united states, offered a mosaic to the united nations for its 40th anniversary. the mosaic represents a multitude of characters of different ethnic, religious and cultural origins, embodying the world in its universality. In fact, the mosaic is directly inspired by one of Norman Rockwell’s paintings, titled The Golden Rule from 1961. The title refers to the fundamental moral rule, called ethics and reciprocity, established in all major religions. thus, by writing in gold letters “treat others as you would like to be treated”, rockwell wanted to convey a message of peace among men in these times of cold war, vietnam war and colonial independence.
however, as early as 1952, the illustrator had planned to create a painting honoring the united nations, called we the people. finding the subject too pretentious in the end, the sketch of it was never transferred to canvas. In the end, the artist unknowingly still contributed to paying homage to this great institution!
to summarize, norman rockwell is the emblematic figure of the golden age of the illustrated press. despite a style described as hyperrealistic, the success of photography in the 1960s precipitated the end of his career. Able to represent the strengths and weaknesses of the American people and championing great causes, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom a year before his death, in 1977. For the United States’ highest civilian decoration, President Gerald Ford wanted thank you for your “vivid and loving portraits of our country”.
Although his overly empathetic treatment of his subjects was criticized and delayed his recognition by the art world, the Guggenheim Museum finally organized his first retrospective in 2001. Since then, his works have sold for millions of euros. His painting The Problem We All Live With was displayed at the White House in 2011 when Barack Obama was awarded the Ruby Bridges. Today, Norman Rockwell is no longer just recognized as an illustrator by his peers and the public, but he is considered one of America’s greatest painters.