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Norman Rockwell: America’s Favorite Illustrator

Published: December 12, 2008

In his warm, witty, and utterly candid autobiography, first published in 1960, the beloved artist offered Post readers a glimpse into his life and the often mischievous world around him.

When I was ten years old, a skinny kid with a long neck and narrow shoulders, I wanted to be a weight lifter. So I began a program of exercises to strengthen myself. Every morning I would do pushups, deep knee bends, jumping jacks, and the like before my bedroom mirror. After a month or so, unable to detect any improvement, I gave up. Instead of becoming a weight lifter, I decided to fall back on what seemed to be my only talent — drawing. And here I am, 56 years later, still drawing.

Every so often, usually when I’m having trouble with a picture, I spread on my studio floor reproductions of the 306 Post covers I have painted since 1916, walk around them, and try to decide whether my work has progressed through all those years. If it hasn’t, I say to myself, I’m washed up.

I never seem able to decide whether my work has improved, because my memories keep intruding. Looking at all those covers, I recall their history: the models I used, the trouble I had getting the original idea, how the public reacted. Everything I have ever seen or done has gone into my pictures in one way or another. The story of my life is really the story of my pictures and how I made them.

There was my uncle, Gil Waughlum, for example, a well-to-do elderly gentleman, who in his youth had been something of a scientist and inventor. It was always told with pride in my family that Uncle Gil, in the course of one of his experiments, had flown the great Gil Waughlum kite from a tower on Washington Square in New York. I don’t know what the experiment proved — something to do with Benjamin Franklin and electricity, I believe — but it was important, for in their day Gil Waughlum and the great Gil Waughlum kite were well known.

When I knew him he had given up science. A stout old gentleman with pink cheeks and a bald head, he was always giggling and nudging my brother Jarvis and me to make sure we were properly merry. Whenever I think of him, I’m reminded of Mister Dick, the kindly, gay simpleton who was Betsey Trotwood’s companion in Dickens’ David Copperfield. I don’t mean that Uncle Gil was a simpleton. He wasn’t. But he had one eccentricity — he got holidays mixed up.

On Christmas Day, with snow on the ground, Uncle Gil would bring firecrackers to celebrate the Fourth of July. On Easter he would bring us Christmas gifts; on Thanksgiving, chocolate rabbits. The next year we had firecrackers on my birthday and chocolate rabbits for Christmas. We never knew what to expect. I always wondered where he got firecrackers in December or Christmas cards in April. But I guess the merchants in Yonkers, his hometown, understood his problem.

He always sneaked into the house and hid our gifts — under pillows, behind the couch in the parlor, in dresser drawers — so that we might have the fun of a treasure hunt. I remember him shouting, “Warm. Norman, warm!” as I approached a hidden present, and “Hurrah!” when I found it. In 1936, when I painted a Post cover of a small boy searching the pockets of his grandfather’s overcoat for a gift, I was really painting Uncle Gil.

Of course, I don’t claim to have put on canvas 66 years’ worth of people, places, and events. Rather, I store up things in my mind, and when I need something for a picture—a feeling, a character, a wry smile—there it is. And I draw it out and paint it.

Whenever I want embarrassment, I think of the time I tried, and for several agonizing minutes failed, to lift a 250-pound soprano during a performance at the Metropolitan Opera. For rackety-bang confusion, I recall my early days as an illustrator, when my models were surly dogs, rambunctious children, and a cheerful duck. Whenever I want despair, I remember the time I was swindled out of $10,000. For chagrin I remember my flops — the affair of me and the seven movie stars; the United Nations picture I couldn’t bring off.

And for a mixture of embarrassment, confusion, despair, and chagrin I recall my dinner at the White House. Come to think of it, that dinner embraces vanity, exuberance, fright, and a wonderful, warm personality. It’s too complex to paint; it wouldn’t fit inside a frame.

It all began one sunny day in May 1955, when I received a note from President Eisenhower, inviting me to a stag dinner at the White House. I had painted his portrait in 1952, but I had never expected an invitation to dinner. Overcome with delight and anxiety, I posted my acceptance and hurried to the attic to dig out my tuxedo. As I pulled it from a steamer trunk, a cloud of moths flew up. The sleeves were tattered, the seat ragged, the lapels threadbare. Hastening to a local haberdasher for a replacement, I was shown a midnight blue jacket with lapels dropping in a fat, glittering curve to the waist. I thought it looked cheap.

“You’re sure it’s fashionable?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” said the clerk, “midnight blue, shawl collar — that’s the latest.” So, in spite of my misgivings, I bought it.

That wasn’t the end of my preparations. I expected to be nervous, even scared, at the dinner. Suppose my mouth dried up and I was unable to speak? What then? I thought. Why, you’ll be ashamed of yourself. (“Hello,” says the President — “Gargle,” say I.)

I visited the office of my friend, Dr. Donald Campbell. Could medical science help me? It could. Doctor Campbell handed me a tranquilizer pill. “Take it 20 minutes before you go to the White House,” he said, “and you won’t be afraid of a thing, Norman. It obliterates apprehension, tension, and dread.”

Armed with my pill (pea green) and my tuxedo (midnight blue) I went to Washington, confident that I was bulwarked against catastrophe. On arriving at my hotel I inquired how long it took to drive to the White House. Then I went to my room and worked out a schedule. At 6:30, exactly one hour before the dinner, I gave my tuxedo to the valet to press. At 7:00 he brought it back. As I fumbled for a tip, I noticed him looking at the tuxedo queerly.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“Nothing, sir, nothing,” he said, recovering the blank stare of valets waiting for a tip.

“The tux isn’t fashionable, is it?”

“Well, sir,” said the valet, “I might say that I have never seen that particular shade of blue before.”

When he had left, I stared morosely at my reflection in the shiny lapels of the tuxedo. Patting the pillbox in my coat pocket, I thought, At least you’ve got that; you may look like a fool, but you’ll feel like Grant at Appomattox.

I went into the bathroom, drew a glass of water, and shook the pill out of its box into my hand. It fell on its edge, rolled into the sink, and went down the drain.

“In 15 years,” I said out loud, “I’ll laugh at that.” Stunned, I went into the bedroom, put on my extraordinary tux, tied my tie, and went downstairs.

As I reached the taxi stand outside the hotel, a battered old cab chugged up, clanking and rattling. At the wheel was a stout, middle-aged woman with a chauffeur’s cap cocked over one eye. The doorman waved her away, but I signaled her to stop, feeling that we two, the cab and I, victims of adversity, should stick together.

“The White House,” I said.

“My land!” she exploded heartily. “You going to the White House? Whatta you going to do there?”

“I’m going to dinner,” I said, cheered by this onslaught of good nature.

“Wow!” she exclaimed. “I’ve never taken nobody to the White House before. I’ll get ya there in five minutes flat.” The cab leaped forward with a roar like a wounded rhinoceros.

“Wait!” I said. “I don’t want to be early. We’d better go to the White House and then drive back and forth in front of it until the dot of 7:30.”

“O.K., mister,” she said.

While we were cruising up and down Pennsylvania Avenue she asked, “What’s your name? You famous?”

“I do covers for The Saturday Evening Post,” I said. “My name’s Norman Rockwell.”

“Are you scared?”

“Yes,” I said, studying my watch. “Get ready now. It’s almost time…. Now!”

We turned into the White House gate and jolted to a stop. The guards checked my invitation. Continuing up the drive, we waited while a chauffeur helped a gentleman out of a limousine. A crowd of Secret Service men and other functionaries were standing at the entrance. I paid my fare and started up the steps. “Hey, Mr. Rockwell,” boomed a voice behind me. I turned around. The cab driver was waving at me. “Good luck, Mr. Rockwell!” she shouted. “Good luck!” The Secret Service men laughed. I waved back. “Thanks,” I called.
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A secretary ushered me upstairs and into a sitting room. I almost panicked as I crossed the threshold, for all the tuxedoes were black, with dull lapels. A minute later President Eisenhower greeted me warmly, and I felt right at home.

Then the President, raising his voice a trifle, explained to all of us that his stag dinners are informal get-togethers; he hoped we would not talk to the press about the dinner. So I will only say that I had a fine, easy time and enjoyed myself very much.

After leaving the President, as we were standing on the steps of the White House, we sounded like a bunch of kids discussing the high school football hero. A secretary had told us that our evening had lasted one-half hour longer than any of the President’s other informal evenings. We were delighted and flattered, which shows how President Eisenhower affects people. You just can’t help liking him.

I have one dark confession to make. Before each place at the dinner table was a small jackknife, a gift from the President to each guest. There was no inscription on the knife, however, so I went to a jeweler’s in New York the next day and asked to have “From DDE to NR” engraved on the knife. During the next few months, whenever I took out my knife, always being careful to show the inscription, people would say, “DDE? Is that President Eisenhower? Where’d you get that knife?” So I’d get a chance to describe my evening at the White House. Ah, vanity, vanity, thy name is Norman!

I sometimes wonder why I was so nervous at the prospect of dining at the White House. After all, I’m no pink-cheeked innocent. Still, I have a rather simple view of life. To me, a President is an awe-inspiring figure. I can’t be as cool as a clam at the prospect of dining at the White House.

And then I have a mercurial temperament. When that pill rolled down the drain, my spirits followed. The same sort of thing happens with my work. When the art critics call me “cornball” and my work “kitsch,” which I’m told is a derogatory term for popular art, I begin to worry. But I always pick up my brushes and go back to work. For better or for worse, I’ll never be a fine arts painter or a modern artist. I’m an illustrator, which is very different.

The modern artist and the fine arts painter have only to satisfy themselves. The illustrator must satisfy his client as well as himself. He must express a specific idea so that everybody will understand it. He must meet deadlines. The proportions of the picture must always fit the proportions of the magazine.

Ten or fifteen years ago a Bohemian art student — beard, long hair, sandals — kept hanging around a studio I had rented in Provincetown, Massachusetts. One day he interrupted my work on a painting of Johnny Appleseed — an old man with an iron kettle on his head and a burlap sack for a coat, striding across a hilltop, flinging out handfuls of seed.

“Whatta ya do it that way for?” the art student asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Whyn’t ya do it with more feeling?” he said. “Like this.” He pulled some colored chalk out of his pocket and outlined a tall rectangle on a big piece of paper. “Now,” he said, filling in with light-brown chalk a shape like a hawk’s beak, “that’s old Johnny’s body. It was browned by the wind and sun. O.K.?”

I nodded, startled,

“O.K.,” he said, and above the hawk’s beak, which projected from the lower right corner, he divided the rectangle into a red area and a white area, each roughly triangular. “He was kind of a religious fanatic,” he said. “Right?”

I nodded dumbly.

“So the white’s his spirit,” he said, “and the red’s the physical part of him, and they’re contending, the physical and the spiritual.” He rubbed blue chalk over the area below the hawk’s beak — “That’s nature.”— made the base of the rectangle dark brown —“That’s earth.”— and drew a hand casting a seed, the arm coming out of the hawk’s beak.

“But,” I said when he’d finished, “nobody knows it’s Johnny Appleseed. Only you know it’s Johnny Appleseed. Nobody else can tell who it is.”

“So? What difference does it make about anybody else? I know it’s old Johnny. I’m painting it for myself. Who cares about the unwashed masses?”

“Besides,” I said, “your picture won’t fit into the book it’s supposed to appear in. The proportions are wrong. You’ve got it too tall.”

“So make the book tall,” he said.

All of which demonstrates, I think, that a modern artist or fine arts painter doesn’t go at a picture the same way an illustrator does. I believe strongly that a painting should communicate something to large numbers of people. So, according to some critics, my work is old-fashioned, trite, banal. This criticism worries me now and then, especially when a picture I’m trying to finish is going badly, but I’ve learned that I can’t change. I’m not a modern artist and never will be. I don’t see things the way modernists do, even though I enjoy studying their work. I’ve been an illustrator since I was 16 years old. I’m not particularly satisfied with my work — at least I’m always trying to improve it — but I believe in it.

It’s not that painting Post covers is easy. I haven’t been doing it for 43 years just because it was the simplest way to earn a living. It’s been darned difficult at times. Once I couldn’t finish a picture for six months; I almost went under that time. And there is a recurring crisis when I seek Post cover ideas.

During my first years as an illustrator, when I’d sit down in the evening to think up a batch of new ideas I’d feel all washed out, blank, nothing in my head but a low buzzing noise. I’d stare at the wall and doodle. One day, after I’d been aimlessly sketching and crumpling up sheets of paper for hours, I said to myself, This has got to stop; I can’t sit here and muse all day. So I figured out a system and used it for 20 years or so.

When I had run out of ideas, I’d eat a light meal, sharpen 20 pencils, and lay out a dozen pads of paper on the dining room table. Then I’d draw a lamppost (after a while I got to be the best lamppost artist in America). Then I’d draw a drunken sailor leaning on the lamppost. I’d think about the sailor. Did his girl marry someone else while he was at sea? He’s stranded in a foreign port without money? No. I’d think of the sailor patching his clothes on shipboard. That would remind me of a mother darning her little boy’s pants. Well, what did she find in the pocket? A top. A knife handle. A turtle — I’d sketch a turtle slouching slowly along to —

Slowly. That would make me think of a kid going to school. No, it’s been done. How about the kid in school? Of course, he hates school. Gazes out the window at his dog. I’d sketch that. The dog runs after a cat. Cat climbs a tree. Dog ambles about, looking for trouble. Sees an old bum stealing a pie from a kitchen window. Dog latches onto the seat of his pants. I’d sketch that. Bum escapes. Eats the pie. Sheriff collars bum. I’d sketch that. Bum to jail….

I’d keep this up for three or four hours, the rough drawings piling up on the floor. Then, worn out, I’d arrive at the absolute conviction that I was dried up, through, finished. So I’d go to bed, completely discouraged.

The next morning I’d be desperate. After pawing at my breakfast eggs for a few minutes, I’d push them away and drag myself out to the studio. What was I going to do? No ideas. I’d kick my trash bucket and suddenly, as it rolled bumpety-bump across the floor, an idea would come to me like a flash of lightning. I’d given my brain such a beating the night before that it was in a sensitive state. Pretty soon I’d have a Post cover.

Nowadays I don’t think up ideas in exactly the same way, but the process is just as nerve-racking. You’d think that by this time I would have thought up a simple, efficient system, but I haven’t. A good idea for a Post cover is hard to come by. I have to work for it. But a picture is worth any amount of bother. I cling to this belief in spite of the trouble it’s got me into. Further on I’ll tell about how I bought almost all the old clothes in Hannibal, Missouri, because of it. And why I’d be embarrassed if I met Stan Musial, Van Johnson, Loretta Young, or Lassie on the street.

It’s a marvel to me the situations I’ve got into and out of during my life. When I was 15 years old, I taught French and athletics at a private school, though I couldn’t speak a word of French or play a slow game of tiddlywinks. Later on, my life was complicated by impostors who committed practical jokes — even swindles — in my name. Compounding confusion, my name is sometimes mistaken for that of Rockwell Kent, the noted artist, writer, and left wing sympathizer. But all these stories are for later telling. Right now, I guess, I’d better begin at the beginning.

I was born on February 3, 1894, in a shabby brownstone-front house on 103rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue in New York City. My mother was an Anglophile — I wore a black arm band for six weeks after Queen Victoria died — and she named me after Sir Norman Perceval, an English ancestor who reputedly kicked Guy Fawkes down the stairs of the Tower of London after he had tried to blow up the House of Lords. The line from Sir Norman to me is tortuous but unbroken, and my mother insisted that I always sign my name Norman Perceval Rockwell.

“You have a valiant heritage,” she said. “Never allow anyone to intimidate you or make you feel the least bit inferior. There has never been a tradesman in your family. You are descended from artists and gentlemen.”

But I had the notion that Perceval was a sissy name. I darn near died when a boy called me “Mercy Percy”; to my relief, the name didn’t stick. When I left home I dropped the Perceval immediately, despite my mother’s protestations.

Until I was nine or ten years old, my family spent every summer in the country at various farms, which took in boarders. The grown ups played croquet, or sat in high slat-backed rockers on the front porch. We kids were left to do just about anything we wanted. We helped with the milking, fished, swam, trapped birds, cats, turtles, and snakes, smoked corn silk behind the barn, fell off horses and out of lofts — did everything, in fact, that country boys do, except complain about the drudgery and boredom of farm life.

Those summers, as I look back on them now, more than 50 years later, have become a collection of random impressions outside of time, not connected with a specific place or event, and all together forming an image of sheer bliss. I remember throwing off my shoes and socks to wiggle my bare toes in the cool green grass on our first day in the country, then running off gingerly over gravel road and hay stubble for a swim in the river. I remember the hayrides, all the boarders singing as the horses trotted along the dark country lanes; the excitement of eating lunch with the threshing crew at long board tables; hunting bullfrogs with a scrap of red silk tied to the end of a pole; the turtles and frogs we carried back to the city in the fall, snuffling and crying on the train because summer was over.

During the summer I lived an idealized version of the life of a farm boy in the late nineteenth century, and my memories of those days had a lot to do with what I painted later on. Every artist has his own way of looking at life, and this view affects the treatment of his subject matter. Coles Phillips and I used to use the same girl as a model. She was attractive, almost beautiful. In his paintings Coles Phillips made her sexy, sophisticated, and wickedly beautiful. When I painted her, she became a nice, sensible girl, wholesome and rather drab.

This view of life I communicate in my pictures excludes the sordid and ugly. I paint life as I would like it to be. Somebody once said that I paint the kind of girls your mother would want you to marry.

In 1951, for the Thanksgiving issue of the Post, I painted a cover showing an old woman and a small boy saying grace in a shabby railroad restaurant. The people around them were staring, some surprised, some puzzled, some remembering their own childhood; but all were respectful. If you actually saw such a scene, some of the staring people would have been indifferent, some insulting and rude, and perhaps a few would have been angry. But I didn’t see it that way. I just naturally made the people respectful.

Frederic Remington painted the romantic, glamorous aspects of the West — cowboys sitting around a campfire, an attack on a stagecoach. Any old-timer can tell you that life in the wild West was often dull. But Remington, who was born and reared in upstate New York, didn’t find drudgery and boredom out West. In the same way I missed the dullness of farm life. I doubt that I would have idealized the country if I had grown up as a farm boy.

Maybe as I grew up and found that the world wasn’t the perfectly pleasant place I had thought it to be, I unconsciously decided to compensate. So I painted only the ideal aspects of life — pictures in which there were no drunken slatterns or self-centered mothers, in which, on the contrary, foxy grandpas played baseball with the kids and boys got up circuses in the back yard. If there were problems in this created world of mine, they were humorous problems. The people in my pictures aren’t mentally ill or deformed. The situations they get into are commonplace, everyday situations, not the agonizing crises and tangles of life.

The summers I spent in the country as a child became part of this idealized view of life. Of course, country people fit into my kind of picture better than city people. Their faces are more open and expressive, lacking the coldness of city faces. I guess I had a bad case of the American nostalgia for the clean, simple country life, as opposed to the complicated world of a city.

Then, I have other motives for painting as I do. For one thing, I have always wanted everybody to like my work, so I have painted pictures that I knew everyone would understand and like. I could never be satisfied with the approval of the critics; and, boy, I’ve certainly had to be satisfied without it.
Brush With Genius

While critics once dismissed Rockwell as merely an “illustrator,” art historians and collectors alike now celebrate his unique talents. The Post invited some well-known Rockwell collectors to share their thoughts about the artist’s universal appeal.

“Norman Rocwell was brilliant. He captured society’s ambitions and emotions and, more importantly, the cultural fantasy and the ideal of society during that particular time in American history. Through his illustrations, you get a sense of what Americans were thinking during those years, and of what was in their hearts.” — George Lucas

“Norman Rockwell’s work illustrated simple values, the pride of citizenship in the nation, in the community and in the home, and a truly American sense of ‘we’ll get through this’ in troubled times. From today’s point of view, you could claim that Rockwell idealized America and its citizens, but he also gave us images of poignant nostalgia and future promise.” — Steven Spielberg

“I first learned about Norman Rockwell while I was selling The Saturday Evening Post magazines door to door, when I was six years old. I admired his paintings of The Four Freedoms and A Scout Is Reverent. Years later I became interested in, and purchased his paintings of, the Homecoming Military Heroes at the end of World War II.

“My all-time favorite Norman Rockwell painting is Breaking Home Ties. This painting epitomizes the generation I grew up in, where parents made great sacrifices to see that their children were properly educated, by sending them to college.

“I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Rockwell and engaged him to paint a portrait of my son. Unfortunately, he passed away while the painting was still in progress. His staff sent me the unfinished copy of the painting.

“Norman Rockwell’s paintings truly capture the spirit of our country, including the very difficult times of the Depression and World War II.

“Prints and copies of his paintings are in my office, and I have the good fortune of viewing them every day.” — Ross Perot

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  • azham shah

    Wish I could draw like Norman Rockwell.

  • Jack Gibson

    Nice article! However the image gallery gets cutoff on the right.