February 7th, 2006
Norman Rockwell
About Norman Rockwell

Picture a nation of patriotic citizens unencumbered by want or fear, free to speak their minds and worship as they chose. In a simple room, generations gather for a bountiful Thanksgiving feast. In a dimly lit bedroom, a mother and father tuck their child safely into bed. At a town meeting, a man stands tall and proud among his neighbors. In a crowd, every head is bent in fervent prayer. This is Norman Rockwell’s America as depicted in his famous “Four Freedoms” series. Although his vast body of work has often been dismissed or stereotyped, Rockwell remains one of 20th-century America’s most enduring and popular artists. Now, more than one hundred years after his birth, he is achieving a new level of recognition and respect around the world.

Norman Rockwell thought of himself first and foremost a commercial illustrator. Hesitant to consider it art, he harbored deep insecurities about his work. What is unmistakable, however, is that Rockwell tapped into the nostalgia of a people for a time that was kinder and simpler. His ability to create visual stories that expressed the wants of a nation helped to clarify and, in a sense, create that nation’s vision. His prolific career spanned the days of horse-drawn carriages to the momentous leap that landed mankind on the moon. While history was in the making all around him, Rockwell chose to fill his canvases with the small details and nuances of ordinary people in everyday life. Taken together, his many paintings capture something much more elusive and transcendent — the essence of the American spirit. “I paint life as I would like it to be,” Rockwell once said. Mythical, idealistic, innocent, his paintings evoke a longing for a time and place that existed only in the rarefied realm of his rich imagination and in the hopes and aspirations of the nation. According to filmmaker Steven Spielberg, “Rockwell painted the American dream — better than anyone.”

Born in New York in 1894, Rockwell had early hopes of becoming an artist. As a young man he left high school to attend art school. A diligent student at the Art Student’s League in New York, he graduated to find immediate work as an illustrator for BOY’S LIFE magazine. By 1916 Rockwell had created his first of many SATURDAY EVENING POST covers. He would continue to create memorable covers for them for nearly fifty years — making three hundred and seventeen in all. By the early 1920s, Rockwell had worked illustrating advertisements for many businesses, including Jell-O and Orange Crush. His work for magazines was growing in popularity and bringing in numerous requests. In 1920 he made a painting for the Boy Scouts of America calendar. Clearly one of the more well-known projects, he continued to work on their calendars until just before his death.

In 1942, Rockwell painted one of his most overtly political and important pieces. In response to a speech given by President Franklin Roosevelt, Rockwell made a series of paintings that dealt with the Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. Throughout the mid-1940s these paintings traveled around the country being shown in conjunction with the sale of bonds. Viewed by more than a million people, their popularity was considered an important part of the war effort at home. During the late 1940s and 1950s Rockwell continued as one of the most prolific and recognized illustrators in the country. While his allegiance to the SATURDAY EVENING POST remained, he produced work for other magazines INCLUDING LADIES’ HOME JOURNAL, MCCALL’S, LITERARY DIGEST, and LOOK.

In the 1960s, prompted by his third wife, new markets, and by the times, Rockwell began to exhibit a strong sense of social consciousness. His images, which had primarily dealt with a utopian vision of the country, began to address realistic concerns. “The Problem We All Live With,” shows an African-American schoolgirl, escorted by safety officers, walking past a wall smeared with the juices of a thrown tomato. In addition to civil rights, Rockwell’s later subjects ranged from poverty to the Space Age, from the Peace Corps to the presidents.

Today, more than twenty years after his death in 1978, Norman Rockwell’s star is once again rising. “Freedom From Want,” that inviting portrait of a New England Thanksgiving dinner, was recently the centerpiece of an exhibit at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. In an era of Abstract Expressionism, Rockwell never achieved the critical stature of contemporaries like Jackson Pollock, but his familiar images have found a permanent place in the American psyche.

  • Jim Stewart

    I loved the program. Rockwell certainly accomplished one of his goals and that was to remind us of the goodness within each of us. Even with the problems of living a creative life the never ending self doubt and the need to be loved he never let us down. Maybe we could use a little Rockwell now more than ever.

  • travis peck

    i loved the porgram.rockwell certainly accomplished one of his golas your paints were very nice

  • Pedro Lloret

    i have a research project on Norman Rockwell… i have a list of questions asigned to me by an “art” teacher that i don’t even see as an art teacher for giving us projects instead of drawing or painting or something but what is the style or movement the artist worked in?

  • Standing_Bear

    This was down home America, representative of the major conflicts of the day no matter how small, or how horrible. Mr. Rockwell had a way of bringing it all to life. War, that first hair cut, thanksgiving day dinner, even the dark days of desegragation.

    May his art live on through the ages.

  • something_01

    i want to know what norman rockwell wanted to see or what he fears, and what he feels…. cuz i have a project and have hard time finding websites that says all the 3 things i needed

  • Irfan

    I want to see more object by free of norman rockwell at his galleries

  • Whitney

    Moved to Vermont in 1939

  • Errol D. Alexander, Sr.

    I feel that Norman Rockwell did as much for the acceptance of civil rights for people of different colors as any march or picket. Can one imagine the impact of his paintings such as Problems we must live, New Kids in the Neighborhood, etc. when they were received in over 2 million households for each edition. Truly a move toward greater racial tolerance. in the USA in the 1960-70’s.

  • natalia

    i have to do a research report thing for my art class and sense i have a very liberal i think that norman rockwell is a good change maybe people will have more patriotism for the people who founded and created america.

  • taufik ridwan

    Since the year of 1864 I was very interested in Saturdy Evening Post in Yogyakarta, through the Jefferson Library IIIndonesia, especially in Yogyakarta Central Java…And I was attracted by ab artist painter named Norman Rockwell through his many cover paintings illustration in those magazines. I was very proud of him…I was only a High school student then…….in 1964….in Yogyakarta …..Even now when I became older and older retired from work as a teacher of Arts in Surabaya East Java I am always still love and adore this famous Painter……..

  • Tim C.

    I attended an exhibit of Norman Rockwell’s art tonight in Dayton, Ohio at the Dayton Art Institute, to me he was one of the greatest artist of modern times. I know he considered himself an illustrator rather than an artist but when you look at his paintings they make you feel like they could jump right off the canvas at you. He was a true American and wanted people to be happy and have love for one another rather than dog eat dog. He definitely told a story with each one of his pieces of art. Along with his exhibit there was also a lecture by Ruby Bridges The little African American in his painting “The Problem We Live With”, I know her story to be true because I lived in Birmingham, Alabama in the late 50’s early 60’s and saw that city almost torn apart from the riots. It’s to bad people can’t work together like they did with his promotion of bonds, this world needs to take a good look at the way things are before it’s to late. I like his quote “I paint life as I would like it to be” and I believe he was really sincere about that, you see it in his paintings, they came from the heart.

  • Steve McEachern

    I have a friend with a pencil sketch of his grandfather, he says, done by Rockwell when both were on board a ship while in the Navy. Could this be, as I have not seen anything written about his service record. Perhaps Rockwell did this with a sense of duty during the war years for sailors.

  • Marie

    To Steve McEachern: Yes! Mr. Rockwell was in the Navy and made drawings of fellow sailors. I just read his autobiography where he mentions this.

  • Hannah Batchelder

    He was in the navy for a short period of time. He got into the army by literally eating 7 pounds of doughnuts and bananas. The physical doctor actually gave it to him so that he could get in. He got out of the army by painting the general and his family, and then insisting that the best frames could only be bought in New York. Because the general wanted those frames, he let Rockwell go with a inaptitude discharge. He did a lot of art while he was in the navy so He probably did sketch that while in service.

Inside This Episode

  • About Norman Rockwell

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