Born in New York City, he transferred from high school at the age of 16 to the Chase Art School. He then went on to the National Academy of Design, and finally, to the Art Students League, where he was taught by Thomas Fogarty and George Bridgman. Rockwell's early works were done for St. Nicholas Magazine, the Boy Scouts of America publication Boy's Life, and other juvenile publications.
During the First World War, he tried to enlist into the U.S. Navy but was refused entry because, being 6 feet tall and 140 pounds, he was eight pounds underweight. To compensate, he spent one night gorging himself on bananas, liquids and donuts, and was enlisted the next day. However, he was given the role of a military artist, and did not see any action during his tour of duty.
Rockwell moved to New Rochelle, New York at age 21 and shared a studio with the cartoonist Clyde Forsythe, who worked for The Saturday Evening Post. With Forsythe's help, he submitted his first successful cover painting to the Post in 1916, Boy with Baby Carriage published on May 20. Rockwell married Irene O'Connor, that same year; however, the couple divorced in 1930. He quickly remarried schoolteacher Mary Barstow, with whom he had three children – Jarvis, Thomas and Peter. In 1939, the Rockwell family moved to Arlington, Vermont, which seemed to inspire him to painting scenes of everyday, small town American life.
In 1943 during the Second World War, Rockwell completed the Four Freedoms series which was completed in seven months and resulted in him losing 15 pounds. The paintings were based on a speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who declared that there were four principles for universal rights: Freedom from Want, Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Worship, and Freedom from Fear. The paintings were published in 1943 by The Saturday Evening Post. The U.S. Treasury Department later promoted war bonds by touring the originals to 16 cities.
That same year a fire in his studio destroyed numerous original paintings, costumes, and props. Later, in 1953, his wife Mary died unexpectedly, which resulted in Rockwell taking time off to grieve. It was during this break that he and his son Thomas produced his autobiography, My Adventures as an Illustrator, which was published in 1960. The Saturday Evening Post printed excerpts from this book in eight consecutive issues, the first issue containing Rockwell's famous Triple Self Portrait.
Rockwell married his third wife, retired schoolteacher Molly Punderson, in 1961. His last painting was published in the Post in 1963, where he painted 321 covers in total. He spent he next 10 years painting for Look Magazine, where his work depicted his interests in civil rights, poverty and space exploration.
During his long career, he was commissioned to paint the portraits for Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, as well as those of other world figures, including Gamal Abdel Nasser and Jawaharlal Nehru.
A custodianship of 574 of his original paintings and drawings was established with Rockwell's help near his home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and the museum is still open today between May and October every year. Rockwell received in 1977 the Presidential Medal of Freedom for "vivid and affectionate portraits of our country", the United States of America's highest civilian honor.
Norman Rockwell passed away at age 84.
Rockwell was very prolific, and produced over 2000 original works, most of which have been either destroyed by fire or are in permanent collections. Original magazines in mint condition that contain his work are extremely rare and can command hundreds of dollars today.
Many of his works appear to the modern artistic eye as overly sweet, especially the Saturday Evening Post covers, and tend toward idealistic portrayals of American life. Consequently, Rockwell is dismissed as a "serious painter" by some contemporary artists, who often regard his work as bourgeois and kitsch. He is called an illustrator instead of an artist by some critics, a designation he did not mind, as it was what he called himself. Yet, Rockwell sometimes produced images considered powerful and moving to anyone's eye. One example is The Problem We All Live With, which dealt with the issue of school integration. The painting depicts a young African American girl walking to school, flanked by white federal marshals, walking past a wall defaced by racist graffiti. It is probably not an image that could have appeared on a magazine cover earlier in Rockwell's career, but ranks among his best-known works today.
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