Norman Rockwell: The People’s Painter

The Problem We All Live With, Norman Rockwell
Norman Rockwell is slowly emerging from his low rank among artists of the 20th century. An “illustrator” not an artist; a producer for mass publication not for the galleries; simple and poignant not highbrow or enigmatic. These are the condescensions that Rockwell had to live with during his lifetime and even now by the majority of art historians and critics.

However, passing time and a view through a lens clarified by our own humanity is providing a fresh take on Rockwell. Are we not in need of art that springs from sentimentality about American values? Is there not a desperate call to understand the dignity of the common man? Isn’t this a time to celebrate democracy and the individual? Do we not need hope for our nation in the face of economic and international uncertainties? The engaging power of Norman Rockwell paintings are for such a time as this.

If one judges Norman Rockwell by popular appeal, he has always been wildly successful. Though derided by the art world, he was embraced by the people. Though his storyteller style was out of fashion in the modern, abstract art establishment, Rockwell was clearly understood. Rockwell wrote in 1936:

The commonplaces of America are to me the richest subjects in art. Boys batting flies on vacant lots; little girls playing jacks on the front steps; old men plodding home at twilight, umbrellas in hand — all of these things arouse feeling in me. Commonplaces never become tiresome. It is we who become tired when we cease to be curious and appreciative.

Norman Rockwell first scouting calendar, 1925Rockwell was born in 1894 in New York. He was a prolific painter, producing over 4000 original works. It’s fitting that one of his first jobs was art editor for the Boy Scouts of America, and Rockwell’s annual contributions to the Boy Scouts’ calendars between 1925 and 1976 have earned him a permanent place in the hearts of millions. Steven Spielberg has said that Rockwell’s scouting paintings inspired him to pursue his life’s work.

Norman Rockwell was best known for his Saturday Evening Post covers, of which he painted hundreds over a period of 47 years. Of these, there are four from 1943 that are among his most famous and influential works. The Four Freedoms series, published in 1943, was inspired by president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech in which he set forth four principles for universal rights: Freedom from Want, Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Worship, and Freedom from Fear. The wartime effect of the bold statements made by these powerful paintings cannot be underestimated.

Freedom of Speech, Norman Rockwell
FREEDOM OF SPEECH, Norman Rockwell

Lest we forget what American life was like in the 20th century, we have Rockwell. We can remember the best of America and the worst of America, but always with benevolent affection. The everyday happenings of everyday people were the subject of most of his work, painted with accuracy and an appealing sense of tradition.

Norman Rockwell Museum
Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People
Norman Rockwell 2008 Calendar

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10 Responses to Norman Rockwell: The People’s Painter

  1. heather says:

    Excellent. Really, in artistic circles you don’t hear much about Rockwell.

    I, personally, am finally learning that “illustrator” isn’t a bad word (regardless of what my professors said). :) It is hard not to see it as such when everyone says it with such contempt. :) How frustrated he must have been with artistic circles.

  2. Sarah says:

    They are very beautiful paintings, thanks for sharing.

    Sarah x

  3. Karen says:

    I have been enjoying your art/art history posts lately. I had to comment about this particular one though.

    We are big in Scouts around our house and are fortunate enough to live in the general vicinity of the BSA Museum (, which has the original paintings Rockwell did for the Scouts. We have been to the museum a handful of times, most recently, last Monday. While looking at the Rockwell paintings then, it struck me how different an experience it is to see them in person. If your only experience with Rockwell is through a magazine, you have missed so much. I can not put into words how moving the actual works are. How stunning it is to see the man’s awesome talent. The depth (in all manner of speaking) is just incredible.

    Let the modern artist sneer at the mere illustrator–that mere illustrator has more artistic skill, style and sensibility than the LOT of them put together! Con artists, more like it!

  4. David Porter says:

    Marvelous post! I wonder, if one wanted to buy an original Rockwell how would you go about it?

  5. Jen says:

    Heather, it’s interesting that even art professors have such a sordid view of a master painter. Why? Funny how there are trends…had Rockwell lived in another era, he would have immediately been recognized as the genius he was.

    Sarah, I’m glad you enjoyed this!

    Karen, well, I’m certainly jealous that you got to see some Rockwell paintings in person!! I’ve heard the same reaction before – that until you see the originals, you just don’t get it. Just the reproductions are enough to move me, so I can imagine what a powerful experience it would be to behold them right before my eyes! My family is also into scouting, and I’m hoping to get one of the Rockwell scout paintings for my Wolf Cub for his birthday (the one with the little scout and seven puppies).

    David, thanks! From what I can gather, it’s difficult to get an original Rockwell. Most of his originals were either destroyed in a fire at his studio around 1943, or are held in permanent collections. And Steven Spielberg holds the largest private collection, I believe. You best bet is to contact the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, which holds the largest collection of originals, over 500 of them, and see what you can find out. The phone number is 413.298.4100. Good luck!!

  6. Kathleen says:

    I love Rockwell and have since I was a child when my mom bought a huge book of Saturday Evening Post covers!

  7. e-Mom says:

    I have always enjoyed this American painter. One day, while browsing in the university bookstore as a student in Canada, I came across a book of Rockwells’ illustrations (which I purchased). That book, along with the American movie classic, “West Side Story” aroused my desire to move south of the border. Isn’t it funny that I ended up marrying an American man? :~D

  8. Renae says:

    Another gem! My grandmother had a Rockwell magazine cover framed in her bathroom. It was of a little boy holding his pants around his waist gazing at a picture on the wall while the Dr. prepared his shot. I always thought it was odd bathroom decor, but my grandmother was a nurse, so it must have made her smile. I wish I knew what happened to that print…

  9. Katy Widrick says:

    I thought you might enjoy this story that we did on a Florida woman who’s family served as models for Normal Rockwell.


    Katy Widrick
    Executive Producer,

  10. Pingback:   Free Speech

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