Illustrating America: The Life And Work Of Norman Rockwell

With today’s endless stream of photos and videos on social media, it’s easy to forget that there were simpler times when messages were carefully crafted in illustrations. During World War II, artist Norman Rockwell got his start illustrating America. His depictions of family, war, and American culture helped tell the story of what life was like in the 1940s and 1950s. As time went on, he only became more immersed in his artwork and thankfully for us, he crafted over 4,000 original pieces in his 84 years of life. Even those who don’t recognize his name have laid eyes on his work. If it weren’t for Rockwell, would we even know what it means to be an American?

He Was a Patriot Who Helped Inspire Americans to Join the War Effort

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Born in New York City, Norman Rockwell was a true patriot. He wanted to serve his country and tried to enlist in the U.S. Navy. He was initially turned down for being under the weight requirement. After gorging himself on bananas and donuts, Rockwell returned to the recruiter and signed on as a military artist.

He painted insignias on warplanes and created illustrations of American life. In 1943, he created the Four Freedoms series, depicting the four principles of universal rights. His works helped sell war bonds and inspired Americans to help the war effort.

Rockwell Changed the Face of Feminism

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When Norman Rockwell’s illustration of Rosie the Riveter landed on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in May of 1943, it disrupted America’s perception of women’s roles in the 1940s. He could have flaunted her curls and shown them falling elegantly out of a handkerchief framing her face. He could have made it a portrait featuring her soft skin and Americana red lips.

But instead, he considered how women felt when they pulled their hair up and donned their denim factory wear. When they handled the machinery and hardened their soft hands with manual labor. Rosie became a cultural icon of World War II, and Rockwell depicted what it meant to be feminine in America during a time of war.

Howard Pyle Was His Idol

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Even the greatest of the great have someone they aspire to be like. For Norman Rockwell, that person was illustrator Howard Pyle. Rockwell called him his “hero” and was consumed with his work.

He was especially mesmerized by Pyle’s menacing illustration of buccaneers toting weapons while drinking booze and safeguarding treasure. Rockwell paid homage to them by including pirates in his painting Family Tree from 1959, which captured the same dark essence of Pyle’s pirates.

A Fire That Inspired Change

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An eerie theme in the illustrator’s life was saving his work from being destroyed. In 1943, Rockwell experienced his first catastrophe. He left his burning pipe in his studio in Vermont, and that night it quickly caught fire. Inside were original paintings, books of his favorite sketches, and costumes and props he had collected for inspiration. Everything was destroyed.

The fire became a rebirth of sorts for his career. He left his visions of fantasy behind and moved forward toward modern life. Rockwell and his wife Mary decided it was time to leave Vermont, and they moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

He Hid His Depression

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Although he was a massively talented artist who had found his calling early on, Rockwell’s life was far from perfect. Mary, his second wife, suffered from alcoholism and depression. When they left Vermont, the couple and their family moved to Stockbridge so Mary could be treated at the Austen Riggs Center in Massachusetts.

Rockwell himself struggled with depression and anxiety too. He told his psychiatrist that he painted his happiness, but did not live it. “I paint life like I like it to be,” he said. Rockwell racked up an enormous tab with his psychiatrist, the famed Erik Erikson, and paid it off by painting advertisements for brands.

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg Are Big Fans

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg Are Big Fans

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Both directors George Lucas and Steven Speilberg are huge fans of Norman Rockwell’s work. “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 has said.

The two also taunt each other as to who has the better art collection. In 2010 Spielberg found out that Lucas had purchased a genuine oil painting of Rockwell’s. Spielberg said, “I copied [Lucas] and got a Rockwell. I went out and got a bigger Rockwell!”

Rockwell Loved Literacy and Had a Thing For School Teachers

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Was it a coincidence that not one, but all three of Norman Rockwell’s wives her school teachers? Probably not. Unlike his older brother, Rockwell wasn’t an athletic kid by nature. He sought refuge in reading and creating art. His artwork graced the covers of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Literary Digest, and of course, The Saturday Evening Post.

During his lifetime, Rockwell produced more than 4,000 original works and illustrated more than 40 book covers. He was quoted as saying, “I’m tired but proud.”

He Encouraged Others to Appreciate their Lives and Live in the Moment

He Encouraged Others to Appreciate their Lives and Live in the Moment

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Rockwell observed American life, and deeply felt the problems that plagued society. While he silently suffered from depressed, he wondered why others couldn’t be content with their lives.

He said, “When I go to farms or little towns, I am always surprised at the discontent I find. And New York, too often, has looked across the sea toward Europe. And all of us who turn our eyes away from what we have are missing life.” This is when people noticed the shift in perspective of his work, as he switched gears and shone a light on society’s problems.

The Painting in the White House

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One of Rockwell’s works that received a great deal of attention and sparked conversations was The Problem We All Live With, which he painted in 1963. The artwork features civil rights icon Ruby Bridges when she was six years old. The scene was set in segregated America in 1960.

Rockwell painted Bridges holding her school supplies as she’s was escorted by law enforcement into school. She was the first African-American child to attend the all-white elementary school in Lousiana. During President Obama’s term, the painting hung in the White House.

Another president granted Rockwell the highest honor.

Rockwell Was Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

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Rockwell also had the privilege and honor of painting the portraits of American presidents. He was commissioned to paint Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.

In 1977, Gerald Ford awarded Norman Rockwell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Ford praised Rockwell’s contribution to American culture, describing him 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.