Rockwell Files: The Pirate in Rockwell’s Family Tree

Norman Rockwell’s Family Tree tells a whole genealogical tale in one image, though the artist faced some obstacles around its roots.

Illustration of Norman Rockwell's family tree, showing members in stylized period dress. At the roots of the tree, his ancestors are pirates. At the top is a young child.

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According to Rockwell, this cover took him longer to paint than any other. The reason was that pirate at the root of the family tree.

In 1959, Rockwell was dictating his autobiography to son Tom and thinking back over his family history. It might have been what inspired him to paint the family tree of an all-American boy.

The shape was based on a 12th-century Dutch family tree. He indicated the bloodline by the heads that touch the branches.

You’ll notice a family resemblance among most of the men; they were all created from the same model. However, the face of the austere New England minister is Rockwell’s own.

He struggled with this painting for months. It was hard work to make each face convey a character. What’s more, he had to decide whom to put at the base of the tree. Would it be royalty or rabble? Both, he decided, and he began with a pirate and a princess seized from the Spanish galleon shown in the lower corner. But when a friend saw this, he asked Rockwell, “Do you think you ought to start off the family with him, a cutthroat, a barbarian?”

Rockwell reconsidered. He replaced the pirate with a Puritan. Unhappy with that, he replaced him with a buccaneer. Finally he painted the pirate back, saying, “Everyone has a horse thief or two in his family.”

Illustration of Norman Rockwell's family tree, showing members in stylized period dress. At the roots of the tree, his ancestors are pirates. At the top is a young child.
Family Tree
Norman Rockwell
October 25, 1959

This article is featured in the January/February 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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Comments

  1. I am somewhat confused, are the parents of the cute little boy fourth cousins? Based upon the family tree everyone is a descendent of the pirate and kidnapped Spanish Prisoner.

  2. I subscribed to the Post in mid-Dec and have not yet received a magazine. Will I get one soon? Do you have a vendor near Port Angeles, WA where I can pick up the latest edition?

  3. It’s no wonder Rockwell struggled for months on this cover, and what a tale his thoughts could tell during the choosing, rejecting and then re-choosing process. It’s ironic this one was so much more complicated than so many others that appear to be so!

    I like k Hart’s comments that precede mine. While we have ladies here that range from proper society to the bawdy and haughty, it’s a little harder to get a read on the men other than lineage carryover; except the minister. Rockwell seems to have drawn himself with the unsettling uncertainty he was experiencing at the time.

    The end result is a visual masterpiece that even Ancestry DNA dot com wouldn’t be able to come up with! As for the pirate, he would have had the tired, burned-out Johnny Depp walking the plank a long time ago.

  4. The beaches tree trunk and ship’s background skirmish results with Rockwell’s rich plunder..
    Branch’s successive fruit’s families being looking opposition in the civil war, proper society or dancehall ladies!
    He’s the sweet kid atop, Norman!

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