A Very Norman Rockwell Christmas

Norman Rockwell - Signed Classic Print of, Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas. Norman Rockwell - Signed Classic Print of, Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas. Sold for $800 via Early American History Auctions (July 2022).

Few people have captured American culture quite like Norman Rockwell (1894-1978). Famed for his cover illustrations of everyday life for The Saturday Evening Post (where he worked for 47 years), it’s his warm festive scenes that have inextricably linked him to Christmas in the USA.

“Some people have been kind enough to call me a fine artist. I’ve always called myself an illustrator. I’m not sure what the difference is. All I know is that whatever type of work I do, I try to give it my very best. Art has been my life”

Norman Rockwell

Not only a prolific artist who produced more than 4,000 original works in his lifetime, Norman Rockwell’s idealized portrayals of American life have been warmly received by audiences since his first Saturday Evening Post cover in 1916. However, it’s the idea of a Norman Rockwell-themed Christmas that has truly crystalized in American culture.

Capturing the public and private lives of a nation, as technology advanced in the post-war years Rockwell welcomed the camera into his technique. Later, he explained, “I feel that I get a more spontaneous expression and a wider choice of expressions with the assistance of the camera, and I save a lot of wear and tear on myself and the model.”

Dismissed by many serious art critics in his lifetime, Rockwell painted over 300 cover illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post that included a wide-range of pictorial triumphs. However, ever since his first festive commission for Mrs. Arnold Constable in 1911 to produce Christmas cards, Rockwell has become inseparable from Christmas and old Saint Nick in America. 

So as we head towards the festive season, Invaluable pays tribute to a master of the season by looking at 10 of his Christmas paintings that have helped to shape the image of Christmas.

Man Playing Santa (1916)

Rockwell’s first Christmas-themed Saturday Evening Post cover from December 1916 represents a significant advance on his earlier efforts, as his previous silhouetted characters on white backgrounds were replaced with color and greater detail.

Released in the weeks before Christmas, the scene depicting a middle aged man trying on a Santa beard with the help of a shopkeeper. They stand in front of an array of toys, reminding the audience of who most enjoys the festive holidays. The painting is actually the first of two parts, with the second appearing on the cover of American Boy’s December 1916 edition Merry Christmas, Grandpa, which features the child returning the compliment.

Although the whereabouts of the original oil on canvas painting remains unknown, the scene paved the way for Rockwell to begin his popular association with Christmas.

The Night Before Christmas (Santa Peering over Chair at Sleeping Child) (1923)

His December 1923 cover of Literary Digest was Rockwell’s final illustration for the magazine. In it, he captured the magic of building anticipation before Christmas Day, as well as the artist’s admiration of Rembrandt

In his early works, Rockwell often emulated the Dutch Golden Age painter’s works by using chiaroscuro (light-dark) effects. He achieves this to great effect in The Night Before Christmas. The candlelight illuminates the sleeping child central to the composition, leaving Santa to emerge from the shadows. See Rembrandt’s Saint Peter in Prison for potential inspiration.

The Night Before Christmas remained in private ownership from 2002, but was sold in 2019 for $300,000 at Heritage Auctions.

Norman Rockwell, Christmas: Santa Reading Mail oil on canvas.

Norman Rockwell, Christmas: Santa Reading Mail. Sold for $657,000 via Sotheby’s (November 2007).

Christmas: Santa Reading Mail (1935)

Demonstrating his generosity and warmth of spirit during the holidays, Rockwell gifted Christmas: Santa Reading Mail to its original owner after it illustrated the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in December 1935. 

“Despite the fact that our house was quarantined [due to a case of scarlet fever], Mr. Rockwell came across the street carrying the 1935 Christmas cover he had painted for The Saturday Evening Post, and he told my father that he wanted me to have it hoping that it would make me feel better and speed my recovery. The painting has been treasured by me ever since,” explained the owner in 2007, before it was sold in the same year for $657,000 at Sotheby’s.

The painting portrays Santa with a golden halo in a nod to the traditional 19th century Germanic image of Sankt Niklaus, while the present is represented by an overstuffed brown leather United States mail bag that sits at his feet.

Norman Rockwell, Under the Mistletoe.

Norman Rockwell, Under the Mistletoe. Sold for $752,500 via Sotheby’s (December 2009).

Under the Mistletoe (1936)

Painted in 1936 for the December cover of The Saturday Evening Post, Under the Mistletoe captures romantically portrayed and intertwined characters in a nostalgic scene of budding romance during the festive period.

“I select traditional subjects. Santa Claus, kids, Christmas revellers, or a cup of Christmas cheer in Merry old England … because that’s the way I feel about Christmas,” explained Rockwell of the painting that was originally titled Feast for a Traveller and showed Rockwell’s development of the warm, nostalgic style that would come to embody Christmas – and Rockwell.

The original oil on canvas was exhibited at the Greenville County Museum of Art in 1986 and the Mississippi Museum of Art in 1988, before achieving $752,500 when was sold at auction in 2009 at Sotheby’s. 

An Audience of One (1938)

A middle-aged man peers into a mirror on the inside of a makeup box, daubing white on his eyebrows with a sense of commitment. Beside him, a wig awaits on a stand. The title, An Audience of One, suggests that this might just be the calm before the storm. Before long, he will be visited by throngs of parents and children. The pared-back background of this painting makes Santa-to-be the exclusive focus, in contrast to some other works, where the characters’s surroundings are highly detailed and intricate, giving the viewer greater context.

Norman Rockwell, Extra Good Boys and Girls.

Norman Rockwell, Extra Good Boys and Girls. Sold for $2,169,000 via Christie’s (November 2007).

Extra Good Boys and Girls (1939)

Not only one of Rockwell’s most memorable depictions of Santa Claus, Extra Good Boys and Girls is perhaps one of the most unforgettable images of jolly old Saint Nick that any artist has ever produced and it has even helped shape our collective image of modern Christmas.

“Norman Rockwell is generally credited with the invention of the modern American Christmas and the tender sentiments attached to it,” according to the book Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, and Extra Good Boys and Girls is a perfect manifestation of this after it appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in December 1939.

As a nation increasingly focused on consumerism, Rockwell’s warm and jovial holiday paintings helped to construct the modern American concept of Christmas. The importance of this particular painting was confirmed in 2007 when it sold for $2,169,000 at Christie’s.

Norman Rockwell, Christmas in the Heart.

Norman Rockwell, Christmas in the Heart. Sold for $881,000 via Sotheby’s (November 2007).

Christmas in the Heart (1941)

The illustration Christmas in the Heart was created to accompany Rachel Field’s story of the same name, which appeared in the January 1941 issue of American Magazine. The title pays homage to Ebenezer Scrooge’s famous final repent in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” 

Rockwell’s work often portrayed a humor or lightness, but with the country engaged in war overseas in 1941, this time a sincere message of kindness and compassion for all during the holiday season is shown through two little girls bundled up on a cold winter’s night waiting in a doorway to deliver a basket.

In another example of Rockwell’s generosity and sense of community, Christmas in the Heart was donated as a raffle prize to raise money for the Arlington Community Club and Martha Canfield Library in Arlington. The winning raffle ticket would have cost 25 cents at the Community Club’s fundraiser in 1942. In 2007 it sold at Sotheby’s for $881,000. 

Norman Rockwell, Tired Sales Girl on Christmas Eve.

Norman Rockwell, Tired Sales Girl on Christmas Eve. Sold for $3,600,000 via Sotheby’s (November 2018)

Tired Sales Girl on Christmas Eve (1947)

First appearing on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in December 1947, Tired Sales Girl on Christmas Eve not only displays Rockwell’s mastery of visual storytelling, but also his deft humor. In this painting he affectionately and amusingly illustrates the exhaustion of the festive period for those on the other side of the counter. Shoes kicked off, and slumped against the wall – the time is five minutes past five on Christmas Eve. 

Striving to add ultimate authenticity to his work, Rockwell travelled to Chicago’s Marshall Field department store for the realistic scene. He auditioned models to pose, before choosing a 17-year-old waitress working in a nearby diner. The affection in the heart of the American public for this painting was confirmed when it sold for $3,600,000 in a 2018 auction at Sotheby’s.

Christmas Homecoming (1948)

After first appearing on the Christmas Day cover of The Saturday Evening Post in 1948, Norman Rockwell’s depiction of a happy Christmas reunion not only features his own family, but has become symbolic of the importance of American families gathering together over the festive period.

Joyous, beaming with pride, and full of festive cheers, the family depicted is, the familiar, happy scene is given added significance by the fact that it’s the only painting in the artist’s cannon that features all five of his immediate family – and even features the artist with a pipe.

As the family group look on, the scene shows Rockwell’s eldest son, Jarvis, laden with presents as he arrives home for the holidays and is embraced by Rockwell’s wife, Mary. In the background, the artist appears with a pipe, while his middle son, Tom, grins in a plaid shirt and the youngest son Peter (wearing glasses at the far left) look on excitedly. 

The original oil on canvas painting, 35.5 x 33.5 inches or 90 x 85 cm, is currently part of the collection of the Norman Rockwell Museum of Stockbridge Massachusetts. But a charcoal and pencil on paper study sold at Sotheby’s in May 2019 for $650,000.

Truth About Santa (1956)

Perhaps on a hunt for presents, a pyjama-clad boy comes across a Santa outfit while rummaging in his parents’ drawers. Eyes wide, jaw dropped, the shocking truth about Santa has been revealed. Rockwell depicts the discovery in his typical tongue-in-cheek style, warmly ridiculing the children entertained by the myth and the doting parents who keep it alive. After all, everyone must learn the truth about Santa at some point. 

Rockwell’s coming-of-age painting marks his final cover for The Saturday Evening Post. It could be interpreted that, just as the boy has outgrown the tale of Santa, after 47 years Rockwell has outgrown The Post. 

Little Girl Looking Down the Stairs at Christmas (1964)

Exploring American family life, Rockwell not only focused on the joyous aspect of the holiday season, but also dealt in a beautiful pathos. This wonderful scene featured on the cover of Christmas issue of the McCall’s catalog in 1964, which had an even larger reach than that of The Saturday Evening Post at the time.

Rockwell’s emotive scene transports us all to a relatable moment of childhood in this atmospheric Christmas painting. Shown from the viewpoint of the child, the foreground of the girl’s world upstairs remains in sharp focus, while the other world of the adult’s party below is soft in focus, and out of reach. 

The painting is also notable due to the way advancing technology helped Rockwell to achieve the perfect scene. The introduction of the miniature 35-mm camera in the mid-1930s revolutionized the job of illustrators, and was utilized by Rockwell from 1937, who positioned the model at the top of the stairs in his own home and assembled a group of friends and neighbors downstairs for the study. Together with preliminary sketches, the process allowed Rockwell to experiment with color, providing an interesting glimpse into the artist’s creative process.

Home for Christmas (1967)

As much as Rockwell’s paintings have come to symbolize life in America as a whole, his Home for Christmas has come to symbolize Christmas in New England in particular. Originally used to illustrate McCall’s 1967 Christmas edition, Rockwell took ten years to complete the painting that takes a Christmas Eve stroll along the picturesque Main Street in Stockbridge, where Rockwell lived until he died – 11 years after the painting was completed.

“Wherever you happen to hail from — city, suburb, farm or ranch — we hope you will have, for a moment, the feeling of coming home for Christmas,” read the McCall’s feature of the snowy scene, which was completed with the help of the camera.

As well as photos of Main Street, Rockwell used photos of snow-draped mountains in Vermont and Switzerland for the background and was influenced by prints of Siberian winter scenes. He used illustrations from Sears, Roebuck & Co catalogs for clothing inspiration, while Rockwell’s assistant Louie Lamone photographed each building to help document every aspect of the town.

The Old Corner House – the first Norman Rockwell Museum – stands at the left of the painting, which is today the property of the Norman Rockwell Art Collection Trust.