The Art of the Post: Norman Rockwell’s Most Important Art Lesson

Early in his career, Norman Rockwell learned an important lesson from his idol, J.C. Leyendecker, and that’s why people still remember and admire Rockwell's work today.

(J.C. Leyendecker)

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Read all of art critic David Apatoff’s columns here.

When Norman Rockwell was a young art student, he idolized Joseph Leyendecker, who he called “the most famous illustrator in America.”  Leyendecker was a cover artist for The Saturday Evening Post, and painted more than 300 covers between 1903 and 1943. Rockwell dreamed of becoming a cover artist too, but didn’t know how he could ever paint as well as the great Leyendecker.

In his autobiography, Rockwell recounted how he spied on Leyendecker, trying to learn his artistic secrets:

I’d followed him around town just to see how he acted…I’d ask the models what Mr. Leyendecker did when he was painting. Did he stand up or sit down? Did he talk to the models? What kind of brushes did he use? Did he use Winsor & Newton paints?

Unfortunately, none of this information seemed to make Rockwell a better painter.

A few years later, Rockwell finally got to visit Leyendecker in his studio and watched first-hand the master working on a painting. It turned out that Leyendecker’s secret had nothing to do with his brand of brushes or paint. Rockwell recalled:

New Rochelle published a brochure illustrated with reproductions of paintings by all the famous artists who lived in the town. Joe worked on his painting for months and months, starting it over five or six times. I thought he’d never finish it.

Painting by J.C. Leyendecker (photo courtesy of David Apatoff)

The painting that Rockwell saw on Leyendecker’s easel was beautiful, with many fine touches.

Close up of a boot in Leyendecker's painting
Detail from Leyendecker painting (photo courtesy of David Apatoff)


Close-up of a hand holding a rapier in J.C. Leyendecker's painting
Detail from Leyendecker painting (photo courtesy of David Apatoff)

The painting was 95 percent finished and the client would have been happy to pay for it. All Leyendecker needed to do was finish this hand and a few other touches.

Close-up of a hand in J.C. Leyendecker's painting
Detail from Leyendecker painting (photo courtesy of David Apatoff)

Yet, Leyendecker remained unsatisfied. The painting didn’t meet his high personal standards.

Rather than correct the parts he wanted to improve, Leyendecker set the entire painting aside and started all over again, searching for the exact image he envisioned.

Later, when Rockwell saw the final version published by New Rochelle, it looked like this:

French swordsman holding a rapier in one hand
(Image courtesy of Elizabeth Alberding, Kelly Collection of Illustration Art)

­­­­­­This gave young Rockwell a lot to think about: Leyendecker’s first version was perfectly acceptable; it just wasn’t 100 percent what it could have been. Leyendecker seemed to spend a lot of time starting over in search of that elusive missing five percent.

Leyendecker’s high standards made Rockwell nervous about showing his own work to the master. Rockwell wrote, “You never asked Joe…what he thought of your painting unless you wanted a real critique; he thought nothing of starting a picture over again.”

But when it was Rockwell’s turn to become a professional illustrator, it seems he had learned the lesson. He painted “100%” in gold at the top of his easel to remind himself never to give anything less. That philosophy kept Rockwell at his easel seven days a week painting countless studies in order to get the details right. If he’d been willing to accept 95 percent, Rockwell could’ve worked faster, made more money and spent more time with his family. But he learned the lesson of Leyendecker, and that’s why people still remember him and admire his work today.

Featured image: Painting by J.C. Leyendecker. Photo courtesy of David Apatoff

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  1. This is an unusual look into both artists, and their approaches to the creation of the picture from start to finish; particularly Leyendecker. When I see the top portrait of his ‘New Rochelle’ it’s excellent. The main thing where it looked like it might need improvement were making the words at the bottom more vivid, bold and clear.

    Truthfully, had he even just tweaked that only, it still would have been a great Leyendecker. Ah, but not when compared to the 2nd one at the bottom, when you immediately see why he wasn’t satisfied with the first one. It’s not unlike the clay models that led up to the final designs of so many classic cars, particularly at mid-century.

    Leyendecker was a perfectionist, knowing when his vision for a particular illustration WOULD be perfect. He had a gift of this instinct, and never settled for less. Rockwell also shared these instincts and that burning desire for perfection. The ‘Rockwell Video Minutes’ the Post has done show this time and time again; most recently with ‘The Holdout’ where a female juror stands her ground.

    Thanks David, for showing us the strong connection and influence Leyendecker had on Rockwell in making his art have the same standards of perfectionism JC’s always had. Both men are arguably the Post’s two greatest artists with over 600 covers between them. This though, is never to take anything away from the MANY men and women who did the vast majority of amazing, beautiful covers for the Post during the 1900-1962 era of the magazine.


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