Few American artists are as beloved as Norman Rockwell. A prolific painter, who used his keen sense of observation to capture the energy of twentieth-century Americana, Rockwell produced an incredible body of work that paired human nature with a healthy sense of humor in ever-compelling compositions. In this quick snapshot, we look at Norman Rockwell paintings through the lens of five facts from his career that remind us why Rockwell’s art continues to be coveted by collectors the world over.
#1: Rockwell began his professional career in his teenage years.
Rockwell’s passion for art emerged at an early age, and growing up in New York City he had access to some of the best art schools in the country. Formative lessons at The National Academy of Design and the Art Students League allowed Rockwell to refine his artistic abilities. Passion turned into profession for Rockwell in 1912, when he was hired as an art director for the Boy Scouts of America’s Boys’ Life magazine. Teenager Rockwell excelled in these Boys’ Life illustrations, which often matched heroism with humility, conjured with penetrating detail, and thus offered a prelude to the insightful and emotional power of his later Saturday Evening Post illustrations.
#2: Rockwell worked for the same magazine for nearly 50 years.
On the heels of his early Boys’ Life work, Rockwell was offered his first cover illustration commission for The Saturday Evening Post in 1916. The first of what would become more than 300 covers 47 years for the wildly popular magazine, Rockwell’s illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post (and for other publications – his contract with the Post was not exclusive) showcased both his vitality and versatility as an illustrator. From cherubic children to heroic soldiers in battle to tongue-in-cheek commentaries on contemporary culture, Rockwell covered an incredible amount of ground in the visual space of a single compositional frame.
#3: One of Rockwell’s biggest rejections came from the Navy.
Just as Rockwell’s career was blossoming, World War I was raging. Keen to do his part, Rockwell went to enlist in the Navy. His efforts were thwarted, as he was initially turned away for being too skinny. Attempts to bulk up quickly – purportedly with a diet of bananas and doughnuts – worked, and he was able to enlist. Just as the time was approaching for him to be shipped off to war, he was instead reassigned to be an illustrator for the local Navy publication, Afloat and Ashore.
#4: Rockwell’s iconic Four Freedoms changed the course of wartime fundraising.
Rockwell wanted to contribute to the war effort again when World War II loomed over the 1940s. Inspired by President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 Four Freedoms speech, four Norman Rockwell paintings – Freedom from Fear, Freedom from Want, Freedom of Speech, and Freedom of Religion – that promoted patriotism through powerful symbolism. These paintings became some of the most effective fundraisers of all time: their national tour netted more than $100 million in purchased war bonds, and the use of the images by the war department as promotional posters proved incredibly effective.
Above: Norman Rockwell, four Freesoms posters: Freedom from Want, from Fear, of Worship and of Speech, 1943. Sold for $5,500 via Freeman’s (20 May 2021).
#5: Fans of Norman Rockwell paintings include two of history’s greatest filmmakers.
Filmmaking legends George Lucas and Steven Spielberg consider Norman Rockwell one of their favorite and most influential artists. Both have collected numerous works by the artist – George Lucas is in the process of building a new home for his Rockwells in the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art – and they have shared in past interviews that the compelling aspect to Rockwell’s work was his ability to capture the spirit of moment and of the age.
This captivating quality became particularly poignant in the later years of Rockwell’s career. Equal parts introspective – like his iconic Triple Self-Portrait (1960) that appeared on the cover of the Post – and culturally aware – like The Problem We All Live With (1963), which became an illustration for Look magazine – this later work spoke to a changing America while also showcasing Rockwell’s enduring capacity to capture the most poignant and pressing moments.
It was also during this era that Norman Rockwell plates came into popularity. Transferring many of Rockwell’s most cherished images to fine china, Norman Rockwell plates became collector’s items themselves. Variations and series were also rendered in sterling silver to add to the timeless elegance of Norman Rockwell’s art.
Remembering Norman Rockwell
Many Norman Rockwell works live on in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, home to the Norman Rockwell Museum that was established from a trust Rockwell created in the 1970s. Rockwell’s influence is more far-reaching, though, as the work he created spoke to an entire era. From his record-setting oil on canvas works to the widely circulated prints and posters of his illustrations, Norman Rockwell paintings continue to captivate collectors around the world as they are as timeless as they are historic.