Norman Rockwell: Celebrating America

by Susan Kay Crawford and Mark Hunt

 



 

The name Norman Rockwell evokes images of small towns inhabited by friendly, hard-working men and women whose lives revolve around family, friends, school, and church. Rockwell entered American homes frequently on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post and other favorite magazines, confirming people's better impulses, poking gentle fun at their foibles, and reminding them of basic humanity.

Norman Rockwell was without doubt the most beloved illustrator of American life for over sixty-six years, speaking to the American public through the thousands of illustrations he produced for magazines, calendars, and books. He was best known for his forty-seven years of work with the Saturday Evening Post, during which he produced 321 cover illustrations. Less well-known, however, is the artist's sixty-four-year affiliation with the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). Rockwell held his first and only salaried position from 1913-1916 with BSA and continued working with the organization after leaving that position. Of the works produced through this association, his Brown & Bigelow calendar paintings are probably the most widely recognized.

Scouting fit well with Rockwell's view of American life. These illustrations captured important moments in the life of a Scout, his family, and his friends, reflecting a youthful nobility of spirit exemplified by the Scout Oath and Law. The images share with his other work an affirmation of basic human values and exhibit the same warmth, sense of humor, and pathos.

The National Scouting Museum, located in Murray, Kentucky, houses BSA's Rockwell collection, the second largest in the world. The Museum is proud of this priceless collection of more than fifty of Rockwell's finest oil paintings and sketches which spans the artist's entire career, from his first Scout canvas in 1918 to his last in 1976. The National Scouting Museum is now celebrating the centennial of the birth of this American icon with a year of events, programs, and exhibits focusing on Rockwell and his work.

The artist was born February 3, 1894 in New York City. His father was the manager of a textile firm's New York office and liked to draw in his spare time, copying illustrations from magazines and books. Rockwell's mother was the daughter of an English artist who immigrated to the United States in the late 1860s. Her father had hoped to become a portrait painter, but instead made a meager living painting landscapes. Although Rockwell was never close to his parents, his father's interest in drawing and his maternal grandfather's career as an artist influenced his decision at age thirteen to become an illustrator.

In 1908, Rockwell commuted from his family's home in Mamaroneck, New York, to New York City in order to attend the Chase School of Fine and Applied Art. He left high school in his sophomore year and joined the National Academy School as a full-time student. The highly academic curriculum at the Academy did not suit Rockwell, however, and at the age of sixteen he enrolled at the Art Students League, one of the most liberal art schools of its day. His life drawing classes with George Bridgeman offered the necessary lessons on drawing the human form, but Bridgeman's classes were designed for students who intended to become artists, and Rockwell wished to be an illustrator. Accordingly, he switched coursework and enrolled in Thomas Fogarty's classes.

Fogarty was a noted illustrator whose work regularly appeared in books and magazines. His practical teaching style appealed to Rockwell -- the teacher would sometimes turn commissions over to his students in the form of an assignment. The student with the best work would receive the commission money and get to see his or her work in print. In 1911, Rockwell won such a competition with an illustration for the American Book Company -- a frontispiece for a biographical account of Samuel de Champlain, the sixteenth-century French explorer.

In the fall of 1912 Fogarty learned that BSA had recently acquired a small New England boys' magazine which they planned to turn into a national publication. Having seen an advance copy of the magazine, which featured a cover by the prominent illustrator J.C. Leyendecker, the teacher suggested that Rockwell take his work to BSA's National Office. With Fogarty's encouragement, Rockwell showed his illustrations to Edward Cave, the editor of Boys' Life, and was given an assignment to illustrate Stanley Snow's story, Partners. The three charcoal drawings he produced appeared in the January 1913 issue of the magazine, and Cave was so pleased that he gave Rockwell three other stories to illustrate. The editor also asked him to begin a series of pen and ink drawings for a new book he had written, The Boy Scout Hike Book, for which Rockwell produced 106 illustrations.

Cave's writing and Rockwell's clever illustrations proved very popular. With the book's success, Cave felt sure enough of Rockwell's talents to offer him a job as Boys' Life's regular artist. For a salary of fifty dollars a month, Rockwell produced the cover and illustrations for one story each issue. The artist was allowed to do free-lance work for other publications, as long as it did not interfere with his assignments for Boys' Life, and he soon found himself quite busy with a full-time job and a successful free-lance career. In 1914 W. P. McGuire, the new Boys' Life editor, allowed Rockwell to contract other artists for Boys' Life illustrations and promoted him to art director, raising his salary to seventy-five dollars a month.

Between 1913 and 1916 Rockwell produced over 200 illustrations and eleven covers for the publication and established himself in the juvenile magazine field. By 1916, however, Rockwell was ready to break into the big league and The Saturday Evening Post was his goal. In March of that year he presented his work to the art director at the Post, Walter H. Dower, who selected two of his paintings and told him to come back with more ideas. Rockwell felt as if he had finally "arrived," as the Post was known for its famous cover artists, such as J.C. Leyendecker, Howard Chandler Christy, and N. C. Wyeth. With his successful Post commission and a seventy-five dollar check for each painting, Rockwell decided to leave Boys' Life and embark on a free-lance career.

 


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