This is the grave of Norman Rockwell.
Born in 1894 in New York City, Rockwell grew up in general comfort, as his father worked for a prominent textile firm. He went to art school at the age of 14 and as a very good artist but not one very interested in high art, he was perfect for designing the illustrated books of early twentieth century. He got his first major gig doing the images for Carl Claudy’s Tell Me Why: Stories About Mother Nature and it was in the large market for boys’ literature that Rockwell would first become famous. He got a job illustrating for Boys’ Life magazine, which was the journal of the Boy Scouts. He got his first magazine cover for that publication in 1913.
In 1915, Rockwell’s family moved to New Rochelle, New York and Rockwell ended up sharing studio space with Clyde Forsyth, a cartoonist for the Saturday Evening Post. This lucky break would change Rockwell’s life. Forsyth introduced him to that magazine and by 1916, he was painting some of their covers. Over the next 47 years, he would have the cover image on a mere 323 issues of the Saturday Evening Post. He left his job with Boys’ Life in 1916 but still frequently provided images for that magazine as well. His rapidly growing fame led him to get commissions for a wide variety of the nation’s leading magazines over the next four decades. He took a break from art in World War I, when he volunteered for the war but was so thin that he did not meet minimum weight requirements. So he went on a binge diet and made weight. Then the military just had him draw for them so he never saw action.
As everyone knows, many of Rockwell’s images were of a romanticized small-town life, one steeped in nostalgia. But this hardly meant he was a reactionary. His Four Freedoms drawings for the Post in 1943, responding to FDR’s announcement of his postwar vision, are very powerful images of what the president promised to a nation. Then of course, Rockwell pained the real Rosie the Riveter image and not the anti-union one that people think is Rosie today, an image that is famous precisely because it so plays into a traditional femininity, making the modern adoption of the image even more ironic. And then, as has become more famous in recent years, his 1964 image of Ruby Bridges desegregating a school in New Orleans, published by Look, has demonstrated his commitment to racial equality, or at least for desegregated schools. This painting was notoriously used by Johnnie Cochran to hang in O.J. Simpson’s house after he murdered his wife to gain sympathy for him. More usefully, Bridges asked President Obama to hang it in the White House and he did.
A terrible fire destroyed much of his work in 1943, including the many period costumes Rockwell used to paint scenes from an older time. That led him to basically only paint current people after this. He bought a big piece of land in the Berkshires and set up in his studio there. Al Capp tried to get Rockwell to write a daily strip with him and Rockwell wanted to, but he could not produce images that quickly and it didn’t work out. He wrote and published his autobiography in 1960 and then left the Saturday Evening Post in 1963, moving almost exclusively to Look. He worked for the Boy Scouts all the way until in 1976, when he did his last calendar illustration for that organization. He was 82 years old and had pained for the Scouts for the last 64 years. Gerald Ford awarded Rockwell the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977.
It’s certainly true that Rockwell was totally dismissed by art critics for a very long time, who noted his great talent but also his sentimentality and unwillingness to produce a higher level of art. I don’t necessarily disagree with that but surely mass art for the people, even if often dripping with sentiment, is not per se a terrible thing. He also remains such a powerful icon today that Lana Del Rey can name her recent album “Norman Fucking Rockwell” and have a song with the same title on the album, which is up for a Grammy. Not many artists can have that kind of staying power with the public, even if so often today his work is used by white conservatives to represent a contrast with everything they hate about the contemporary world.
Rockwell died in 1978 of emphysema. He was 84 years old.
Let’s look at some of Rockwell’s work. Might as well start with a Christmas image since this is a Christmas post.
Norman Rockwell is buried in Stockbridge Cemetery, Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
If you would like this series to visit other American popular artists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Paul Rand, who created the logo for IBM and ABC, among many other companies, is in Norwalk, Connecticut. Bil Keane is in Phoenix and I really want to visit this grave so I can write about how much I hate Family Circus. Previous posts in this series are archived here.