Why Norman Rockwell Matters

Alexxa Gotthardt
Jun 1, 2018 5:48PM

Norman Rockwell. Photo via Bettmann/Getty Images.

What kind of art has the power to charm millions of Americans?

It’d be a good question to pose to Norman Rockwell, that famed painter of quaint, funny scenes depicting mid-20th-century American life. His works were reproduced ceaselessly on magazine covers in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s—and their appeal was immense. By the 1940s, Time magazine had already christened Rockwell as “probably the best-loved U.S. artist alive,” while the New York Times had affectionately compared his paintings to Mark Twain’s novels.

On the other hand, the fine art world’s burgeoning band of critics, led by Clement Greenberg, derided his work as too sentimental, saccharine, and commercial. “You have to put Rockwell down, down below the rank of minor artist,” insisted Greenberg, the leading champion of Abstract Expressionist painting. “He chose not to be serious.”

But Rockwell did have a serious side, and he often surprised his massive fan base by making pictures that cut deep. “Most of the time, I try to entertain with my Post covers,” he explained. “But once in a while, I get an uncontrollable urge to say something serious.” His later paintings from the 1960s and ’70s advocated for freedom of speech and the Civil Rights Movement, and even his most playful compositions often hinted at shifting gender roles, class divides, democratic values, and acceptance of all races and religions.

Norman Rockwell, Golden Rule, 1961. Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, April 1, 1961. © SEPS: Curtis Licensing, Indianapolis, IN. Courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Museum and the New York Historical Society Museum & Library.


By that time, Rockwell had a captive audience—and they listened. “His work has helped define how to convey a message that may not be broadly palatable, or may have something controversial in it, in a way that gets people to look and think—people who may be on the other side of the issue,” said Barbara Tannenbaum, curator of photography at the Cleveland Museum, who helped bring a survey of Rockwell’s work at the Akron Museum of Art in 2007. “That’s certainly relevant these days.”

This summer, the enduring relevance of Rockwell’s work—from the whimsical to the provocative—is celebrated in shows at the New York Historical Society and the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The market is also taking the artist seriously: A group of his paintings and illustrations headlined a recent Sotheby’s sale of American art, collectively selling above the high estimate, with one canvas fetching over $8 million. (The auction record for a single Rockwell painting is $46 million, reached in 2013 for perhaps his most famous work, Saying Grace, 1951.)

All of these events point to a steadily mounting—if overdue—interest from the art world in Rockwell’s talents: his deft skill as a figurative and narrative painter, and his ability to translate keen social observation into works with broad appeal.

Finding his soapbox

Norman Rockwell painting at his easel. Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images.

Norman Rockwell, The Stay at Homes (Outward Bound), 1927. Illustration for Ladies’ Home Journal, October 1927. © Norman Rockwell Family Agency. Courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Museum.

Norman Rockwell was born in 1894 in New York City to Nancy and Jarvis Rockwell, an agent in the then-booming textile industry. As a young boy, Rockwell might have gleaned early inspiration from his maternal grandfather, an English painter known for meticulous genre paintings, portraits, and pictures of animals. While his father wasn’t as artistically inclined, he encouraged his son’s early interest in drawing; as Jarvis read Dickens books aloud, the young Rockwell would illustrate their unfolding dramas.  

In later years, Rockwell sweetly and self-deprecatingly described his young self as awkward, bespectacled, and bumbling. In 1904, at the age of 10, he discovered his “monstrous Adam’s apple, narrow shoulders, long neck, and pigeon toes,” as he later wrote. But he learned to ignore his “shortcomings” whenever he started to draw. By 1907, he had resolved to become an illustrator.

Rockwell’s ascent to commercial success came fast. After quitting high school in 1910, he devoted himself completely to studying his craft at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League.

“I put everything into my work. A lot of artists do that: their work is the only thing they’ve got that gives them an identity,” he later wrote. “I feel that I don’t have anything else, that I must keep working or I’ll go back to being pigeon-toed, narrow-shouldered—a lump.”

By his late teens, Rockwell was landing gigs doing illustration and art direction for magazines like Boys’ Life, and had begrudgingly adopted the nickname “Boy Illustrator.” At age 22, he’d already had three paintings reproduced in one of the country’s most popular magazines, the Saturday Evening Post.

The 1920s were a bustling time for publishing, and illustrators benefitted. Newspapers and magazines were the “sole media for the broad dissemination of news and information,” as historian Elizabeth Miles Montgomery pointed out in her Rockwell biography. Significantly for Rockwell, they were also “the primary source of new images for most people.”

“In a lot of ways, the magazine industry in the mid-20th century was directly responsible for establishing the American Dream,” Stephanie Plunkett, chief curator at the Norman Rockwell Museum, told Artsy, “creating a sense of who we are, what we could be, what we could look like, what our values could be.”

It was in this environment that Rockwell found his launchpad. At its height, the Saturday Evening Post had a circulation of some 3 million, and Rockwell became one of the staff’s favorite cover illustrators; over the course of his 47 years working for magazine, from 1916 until 1963, Rockwell illustrated 322 covers. Editors latched onto the wit and charm of his work, and his “sensitive feeling for humanity,” as Kenneth Stuart, the Post’s art editor, once wrote. The accessibility of his pictures also matched the magazine’s broad readership. “No guide is needed for Norman’s work,” he continued. “The warmth of his understanding reaches them. People experience his paintings.”

Illustrating America

Norman Rockwell, Girl at Mirror, 1954. Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, March 6, 1951. © SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Licensing, Indianapolis, IN. Courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Museum.

Norman Rockwell, Shuffleton’s Barbershop, 1950. Cover illustration forThe Saturday Evening Post, April 29, 1950. © SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Licensing, Indianapolis, IN. Courtesy of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art and the Norman Rockwell Museum.

The works that made Rockwell famous depicted all sorts of Americans going about their lives. He showed them experiencing both daily travails and simple pleasures: puberty, dating, a lonely game of Solitaire, a delicious midsummer skinny dip. We see throngs of loose-tongued town gossips and glimpse inside glowing barbershops, where groups of old men gather to strum away at instruments. Rockwell’s imagery contended with current events, too: historic sports matches, a child going off to war, contentious elections. In one work from 1944, a tattooist scrawls “Betty” across a sailor’s bulging arm. The punchline comes upon noticing the six other names (like Mimi and Olga) crossed out above it.

No matter what their backdrops were, however, Rockwell’s characters hooked readers with a quality of sentimentality and nostalgia, often oozing charm and humor. They were almost all lovable, thanks to the humanity he brought to them. In a 1945 New Yorker profile of Rockwell, writer Rufus Jarman pointed out one critic’s view that the artist “would probably be incapable of painting a really evil person.” This, of course, wasn’t strictly true; Rockwell possessed a rare skill for painting figures and nuanced facial expressions. But early in his career, he made a conscious decision to depict subjects to whom Americans could respond and relate. His characters were expressive, emotional, inquisitive, and apt to make mistakes. In this way, they were relatable—and America fell in love with them for it.  

“Rockwell considered himself to be a visual storyteller,” explained Plunkett. “He was an extraordinary draftsman and an exceptional compositionalist, but maybe his greatest strength was his ability to enter the American psyche. People responded to his art because they saw the best of themselves in it.”

Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Speech, from the “Four Freedoms” series, 1943. Story illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, February 20, 1943. © SEPS: Curtis Licensing, Indianapolis, IN. Courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Museum and the New York Historical Society Museum & Library.

Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Worship, from the “Four Freedoms” series, 1943. Story illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, February 27, 1943. © SEPS: Curtis Licensing, Indianapolis, IN. Courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Museum and the New York Historical Society Museum & Library.

Thomas Buechner, a director of the Brooklyn Museum in the 1960s, found a similar power in Rockwell’s work: “The point of these pictures is to communicate the emotion to the viewer so that he can either experience it himself or react to it as an outsider,” he wrote.

Take Rockwell’s 1951 canvas Saying Grace, perhaps his most famous work—voted by Post readers as their all-time favorite cover, and the painting that would later shatter Rockwell’s auction record in 2013. It depicts a curious scene in which an old woman and little boy pray in the middle of a rowdy diner. Strapping young men, who look like they have a rebellious side (one dangles a cigarette nonchalantly from his mouth, à la James Dean), watch inquisitively. “They’re looking on, they might be curious, they might not agree, but there’s still a dignity, a respect to their reaction,” explained Plunkett. In other words, Rockwell painted a world in which very different people were able to get along, or, at the very least, respect each other’s opinions.

Rockwell spent much of his time passionately observing people around him in New York, where he lived until 1939, and later, in Vermont and Massachusetts. He watched their daily routines, private rituals, and mercurial emotions, using it all as fodder for his paintings. He described his project as “showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed.”

While his paintings often contained elements of caricature, Rockwell also strove for authenticity, especially when it came to finding just the right subject. Often, he’d invite the strangers he observed into his studio to sit for him. “He has dragged people out of theaters, from behind store counters, out of trucks, and off tractors and persuaded them to pose for him,” Jarman chronicled. “He has deserted one of his own wedding-anniversary parties, which was being held in a New York restaurant, because he had spotted someone across the room who looked like a good model.”

Rockwell spent hours, sometimes days, with various sitters, directing them to pose or smile as he sketched or photographed them. Later, he’d combine these studies into intricate narrative compositions. This approach, in which Rockwell connected directly with the American people as part of his process, also extended to the act of painting itself. “I’m trying not to paint the head,” he once said. “I want to feel it. I don’t paint it, I caress it.”

A political turn

Norman Rockwell, The Problem We All Live With, 1963. Illustration for Look, January 14, 1964. Courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Museum and the New York Historical Society Museum & Library.

It was part of Rockwell’s mission to reach as many Americans as possible, but he faced limitations—the Post’s conservative outlook chief among them. As Plunkett explained, “Showing people of color in roles other than service industry roles, for instance, wasn’t possible for him at the Post.” At one point, Rockwell recalled being directed to paint over a person of color he’d included in one of his group pictures, because it was against the magazine’s policy.

Still, Rockwell tried his best to inject a liberal, socially conscious viewpoint into his illustrations for the magazine. Overtly political content began to creep in as early as the 1940s, with covers exploring World War II, the draft, the Space Race, and weighty elections between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Thomas E. Dewey. One piece, Which One? (Undecided Voter; Man in Voting Booth) (1944), explored voter indecision—both a timely and timeless subject. (Last year, The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl discussed the resonances between the difficult decision Rockwell’s voter faced in 1944, and the waffling of a large swath of Americans in the 2016 election.)

Rockwell’s first overtly political work, however, wasn’t originally intended for the Post. As the story goes, in 1942, the artist shot out of bed at 2 a.m. one night with an idea. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 speech about the preservation of democratic values (in the face of war with Germany’s totalitarian regime) had stuck with Rockwell, and he wanted to help promote what had become known as Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms”: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

“He was really struck by those ideals,” explained Plunkett, “and he wanted to find a way to convey them to a public he knew would have a hard time—as he did—grappling with big questions, like: ‘What are we really deciding to protect?’ ‘What does freedom really look like?’ His feeling that art can have an impact beyond entertainment came to him at that time.”  

Promptly, Rockwell set to work on a quartet of paintings depicting these four freedoms. The Post ended up running them as a series of covers. They became an instant sensation, and the original canvases went on to tour the country, being used to subsequently raise almost $133 million in war bonds via exhibition tickets and poster sales. (This summer, all four of the original paintings are on view at the New York Historical Society.)

Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want, from the “Four Freedoms” series, 1943. Story illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, March 6, 1943. © SEPS: Curtis Licensing, Indianapolis, IN. Courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Museum and the New York Historical Society Museum & Library.

Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Fear, from the “Four Freedoms” series, 1943. Story illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, March 13, 1943. © SEPS: Curtis Licensing, Indianapolis, IN. Courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Museum and the New York Historical Society Museum & Library.

Rockwell was emboldened, but it wasn’t until 1963, when he left the Post and started working with the liberal publication Look magazine, that he began to address more controversial issues—namely, his support of civil rights. Consciousness-raising became his modus operandi, led by a 1963 painting, The Problem We All Live With, which became a cover image for Look. It was inspired by both the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled the unconstitutionality of school segregation, and, in particular, the story of Ruby Bridges, the first black child to desegregate the all-white William Frantz Public School in New Orleans.

The painting shows a young black girl being escorted into school, enduring a volley of tomatoes and a corridor marked by hateful graffiti. At the time, the American public’s response was mixed. Some criticized the painting for its support of civil rights or, on the other side, lambasted Rockwell for supposed hypocrisy: as one reader wrote, “Just where does Norman Rockwell live? Just where does your editor live? Probably both of these men live in all-white, highly expensive, highly exclusive neighborhoods. Oh what hypocrites all of you are!”

But many people across racial lines applauded the cover, seeing it as a positive example of the Civil Rights Movement’s growing momentum. Afterwards, Rockwell went on to paint numerous pictures that called for both racial and religious equality. (It’s worth noting that, while Rockwell occasionally made humorous paintings questioning traditional gender roles, he never overtly addressed equal rights for women or the emerging feminist movement of the 1960s.)

The Problem We All Live With continues to resonate. In 2011, President Barack Obama brought the painting to the White House to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Bridges’s historic walk. (Today, Bridges sits on the board of the Norman Rockwell Museum.) Significantly, the loan also coincided with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, born out of response to police violence against Americans of color.

Broad appeal, with a punch

As beloved as Rockwell’s work was by many Americans, he contended with constant criticism—especially from the fine art world—during his life. “Most painters are less responsive to Rockwell than are the readers of the Post,” wrote Jarman in 1945. “They either ignore his work altogether or actively object to it, holding that it is too photographic, that it is not spontaneous, that it is too sweet, or simply that it is not art at all.”

But Rockwell did have a band of supporters who recognized both his rare painterly skill and his work’s unique power to communicate important messages of hope and acceptance to the masses. German painter and political satirist George Grosz praised Rockwell for both his “excellent technique, great strength, and clearness of touch that the old masters had.” He lauded the populist appeal of his work, too: “His things are so universal that he would be appreciated everywhere.”

Even as early as the 1960s, as Rockwell’s pictures became more political, Brooklyn Museum director Thomas Buechner predicted that the painter’s work would stand the test of time. “When this last half century is explored by the future, a few paintings will continue to communicate with the same immediacy and veracity that they have today. I believe that some of Mr. Rockwell’s will be among them,” he wrote.

Buechner predicted correctly, and a growing number of curators and critics over the past 15 years have begun to reassess and highlight Rockwell’s influence in earnest. “The art of Norman Rockwell keeps getting better,” wrote The New Yorker’s Schjeldahl in 2016, “as the funny or sweet covers that he created for The Saturday Evening Post become history paintings.” Rightly, he described the whimsy in Rockwell’s paintings not as trivial, but as depicting “precisely observed facts squared with deeply serious hopes.”

It’s this delicate balance of optimism and hard observation that Rockwell mastered, and it’s helped to power the continuous broad appeal of his work.

Norman Rockwell, Murder in Mississippi, 1965. © Norman Rockwell Family Agency. Courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Museum and the New York Historical Society Museum & Library.

Norman Rockwell, Rosie the Riveter, 1943. Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, May 29, 1943. © SEPS: Curtis Licensing, Indianapolis, IN. Courtesy of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR.

When the Akron Art Museum launched the somewhat controversial expansion of its building in 2007, its curators chose to mount a survey of Rockwell’s work as the museum’s first blockbuster. “The show was a way to get people in the door, especially those skeptical about the expansion,” explained Tannenbaum. “It’s an art that seems familiar, that’s approachable. But there are also many layers to it.”

Tannenbaum went on explain that Rockwell’s work offered something to everyone: “If you were an artist that was interested in painting or narrative art, this was a wonderful lesson in both history and techniques and processes that remain vital. If you were somebody for whom contemporary art was a bit foreign, this was familiar and still very beautiful. And if you were someone who was interested in issues, you could dig into his politically based work, too.” It is the museum’s second highest-attended show to date, topped only by an M.C. Escher retrospective.

The overarching message of Rockwell’s work is one of inclusion, and as the fine art world becomes less insular and exclusive, the artist’s work is being given a platform yet again.

It’s telling, perhaps, that the most prominent private collectors of Rockwell’s work are the famous film directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who specialize in crafting blockbusters of their own. In 2010, their respective Rockwell holdings came together in an exhibition at D.C.’s Smithsonian American Art Museum, which called the artist a “masterful storyteller who could distill a narrative into a single frame” and alluded to his influence on contemporary film.

Still, despite Rockwell’s popular appeal, the canon has yet to fully embrace his work. The Whitney Museum of American Art—whose new building launched with a collection show called “America is Hard to See”—does not have a single work by the artist in its collection.

Perhaps only time will tell when it comes to Rockwell’s full acceptance by the art establishment. But his supporters are hopeful. “He was a great American genre painter who had a very unique and particular connection with his audience,” Plunkett continued, “and whose work has a timeless ability to reflect who we believe we can be—the very best in us.”

Alexxa Gotthardt