Cover Story -- Norman Rockwell's America
On Wednesday, June 16, 1999 Atwater Kent Museum, Philadelphia's history museum, opened Cover Story-Norman Rockwell's America, a major exhibit of all 321 covers that Rockwell created for The Saturday Evening Post from 1916 through 1963.
In addition, through September, an original painting, The Ouija Board, Rockwell's illustration for the May 1st, 1920, Post cover, will also be on view. This painting is on loan from Dr. Don and Phyllis Stoltz, who, along with Marshall Stoltz, were curators of the former Curtis Center Museum of Norman Rockwell Art that closed in 1997. The Stoltzes donated that Museum's collection of Post covers to the Atwater Kent.
This will be the first exhibit to examine Rockwell's cover illustrations thematically, in sections that range from aspects of the artist's life and career to the types of stories and situations he liked best to illustrate.
Rockwell's relationship to Philadelphia's Curtis Publishing Company, which published the Post, as well as his process in creating magazine covers, ads and other illustrations will introduce the visitor to the artist.
Norman Rockwell was born in New York City on February 3, 1894. By the time he was 16 he had left high school and was studying at the Art Students League. His teacher, Thomas Fogarty, helped the teenager get commissions from popular magazines of the day.
Rockwell, whose work has been reproduced more often than Michelangelo's, Picasso's and Rembrandt's put together, was a success from the start of his career. By the time he was 19, he was art editor of Boy 's Life, and by 1916 his work had already appeared in the leading weeklies of the day-life, Colliers, Leslie's and Judge. Still, it took some time for Rockwell to work up the courage to show his ideas to Post editor George Horace Lorimer.
When his work began to appear on the cover of the Post, he became a minor celebrity. In his autobiography Rockwell wrote, "A cover on the Post! Two covers on the Post. Seventy-five dollars for one painting. An audience of two million! I had arrived."
Rockwell told stories through his illustrations that reflected idealized views of American life and showed ordinary people doing ordinary things. "I paint life as I would like it to be," he wrote.
Over half of his covers for the Post show events of childhood and adolescence-a boy and his dog, embarrassing moments, first love and boy meets girl. People all over the world continue to respond to Rockwell's images of the boy about to get an injection in the doctor's office, or the little girl with the black eye waiting to be chastised by the school principal, or the teenage girl in pony tail and blue jeans holding her prom dress in front of her as she glances in the mirror.
By 1919, Rockwell's covers began showing adults in adult situations. But, in all of his cover paintings he revealed the importance of the family, the larger community and the joys of play, most often colored with a sense of humor.
Rockwell humanized the trauma of World War II through Private Willie Gillis, a fictional "everyman" who first appeared in 1941. Rockwell charted his career from induction through discharge in 11 post covers, but never put Willie on the battlefield. In all, Rockwell illustrated 33 covers during the war, taking his subjects from the civilian wartime scene-the armchair general who consults his map while listening to radio reports, Rosie the Riveter and other women workers, and eventually homecoming.
Rockwell's illustrations for The Four Freedoms, although not Post covers, will be on view in Cover Story. When the original paintings went on tour in 1943, they helped to raise sixteen million dollars in War Bonds, one million of which was raised from Philadelphians who first saw the paintings at Strawbridge & Clothier.
In the 1950s and throughout the rest of his career Rockwell, who had previously relied on models for all his illustrations, turned to photography. At first he felt like a traitor to his profession but the change actually enhanced his work-the details were greater and the models were less expensive and more available. His covers became more documentary in nature.
During the five decades that Rockwell painted for the Post, African Americans rarely appeared in his covers. It was the Post's and not Rockwell's philosophy of showing America to Americans, excluding illustrations of American Indians, and, except during World War II, of limiting the roles of women to homemaker, teacher, secretary and nurse.
When Rockwell died in 1978, an obituary in Time magazine said that "Rockwell shared with Walt Disney the extraordinary distinction of being one of the two artists familiar to nearly everyone in the U.S., rich or poor, black or white, museum goer or not, illiterate or Ph.D."
Images from top to bottom: Graphic for invitation postcard from Atwater Kent Museum; Norman Rockwell, The Rookie; Norman Rockwell, Saying Grace; Norman Rockwell, Bottom Drawer; Norman Rockwell, Willie Gillis at USO; Norman Rockwell, Rosie the Riveter; Norman Rockwell, Triple Self Portrait; all images courtesy of Atwater Kent Museum
For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists..
About the Atwater Kent Museum
Philadelphia's history museum was founded in 1938 by radio pioneer A. Atwater Kent, who purchased the historic building -- the original home of the Franklin Institute -- and gave it to Philadelphia to become a museum devoted to the history of the city. Today, the Atwater Kent continues to fulfill Mr. Kent's mission as it becomes a hands-on museum filled with exciting things to see and do.
Located at 15 S. 7th Street, in the heart of the city's historic district, the Atwater Kent is around the corner from the Liberty Bell.
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