America’s most beloved illustrator of the twentieth century, Norman Rockwell is renowned for his depictions of daily life in small town and rural America—a world populated by Boy Scouts, mothers, and children, grandpas and grandmas. Indeed, Rockwell’s aesthetic goals revolved around his desire to create an ideal America as expressed in his best-selling autobiography, "My Adventures as an Illustrator "(1960): "I paint life as I would like it to be." The second child of Jarvis Waring Rockwell and his wife Nancy, Norman Perceval Rockwell was born in New York City, in a decrepit brownstone on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. As a young child, he enjoyed idyllic summers in the country—primarily New Jersey and upstate New York--an experience that remained with him for the remainder of his life and one that had a profound impact on his later choice of iconography. The Rockwell family remained in Manhattan until 1903, when they moved to Mamaroneck, a suburban town in Westchester County, where they resided in a succession of boarding houses. It was there, while attending high school, that Rockwell decided to pursue a career as an illustrator. In 1908, he began commuting to New York to study at the Chase School of Fine and Applied Art, and at the age of fifteen he quit high school to enroll in classes at the National Academy of Design. However, finding the Academy’s curriculum geared towards training the fine artist rather than the illustrator, he left a year later and enrolled at the Art Students League, studying anatomy under George Bridgman and illustration with Thomas Fogarty. In addition to honing his skills in drawing and painting the figure, Rockwell was introduced to the illustration work of Howard Pyle, whose emphasis on historical themes, as well as his penchant for detail and accuracy, exerted a profound influence on the young artist. In 1911, Rockwell illustrated his first book, "Tell-Me-Why Stories" about Mother Nature by C.H. Claudy (published 1912). Two years later he contributed the first of many illustrations to "Boys Life," going on to become art director of that magazine soon after. Commissions for other children’s periodicals, among them "St. Nicholas," "Youth’s Companion" and "American Boy," soon followed. In 1915, Rockwell moved with his family to New Rochelle, New York, an artists’ colony and home to many of America’s finest illustrators, including Howard Chandler Christy and Charles Dana Gibson. Sharing sculptor Frederic Remington’s old studio with the cartoonist Clyde Forsythe, he continued to study the work of older illustrators such as Pyle while painting crisply painted renditions of fresh-faced kids and dogs.
A turning point in Rockwell’s career occurred a year later when he sold five cover illustrations to George Horace Lorimer, editor of the "Saturday Evening Post. " For the next four decades, Rockwell’s name would become synonymous with the "Post." Indeed, during that period he produced 322 covers for the magazine, the most acclaimed of which was his Thanksgiving "Saying Grace" illustration, which appeared in the 24 November 1951 issue. His superbly crafted, topical, and often time’s witty portrayals of everyday American types propelled him into the public spotlight and earned him a national reputation. Rockwell served in the navy during 1917-18, spending much of his time painting official portraits while doing illustration work for the "Post" and magazines such as "Literary Digest" and "Popular Science." He continued his prolific activity until 1923, when he went to Paris to try his hand at modern art. He enrolled briefly at the Académie Colarossi and spent much of his time studying the work of vanguard painters such as Picasso and Matisse. Although he eventually resumed the style of representational realism that contributed to his immense popularity, Rockwell continued to take an interest in contemporary art throughout his career. He traveled to Europe again in 1927, 1932 and 1938, familiarizing himself with the latest developments in the art world. To be sure, he often incorporated modern spatial devices into his work and even produced his own versions of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings around 1962. By the 1920s, Rockwell had achieved considerable success in his field. He joined a country club, learned to ride horses, and fraternized with a coterie of fashionable society types that included author F. Scott Fitzgerald. He moved into the Hotel des Artistes on Central Park West in 1929, but after suffering a breakdown shortly thereafter, he returned to New Rochelle, settling into a stylish Colonial Revival House. In addition to resuming his illustration work, he executed major book commissions that included a new edition of Tom Sawyer and a biography of Louisa May Alcott. He also painted the occasional mural including "The Land of Enchantment" (1934) for the New Rochelle Public Library and "Yankee Doodle" (1937) for the Nassau Inn in Princeton, New Jersey. He also designed Christmas cards as well as a number of posters for the motion-picture industry, the War Department and consumer products such as Jell-O. Rockwell moved to Arlington, Vermont in 1939. He remained in Vermont until 1953, when he settled in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, his home for the remainder of his life. During the final phase of his career, Rockwell took his art in a new direction. Moving away from the nostalgic subjects of the past, he depicted contemporary people and events for "Look" magazine, often exploring issues relating to politics, school integration, racism and America’s space program. Despite his remarkable success and the enormous appeal of his work, Rockwell attracted little attention from art historians during his day. In 1946, Arthur L. Guptill published his "Norman Rockwell Illustrator," the first monograph on the artist and one that has since become a classic. Yet until only recently, there have been few exhibitions and little scholarly analysis of Rockwell’s work, many viewing him as an old-fashioned realist and his art as overly sentimental. However, in the wake of his death, scholars have begun to re-assess Rockwell’s contribution, linking him to a venerable tradition of genre painting that harks back to the Old Masters. Important exhibitions have been mounted at the Norman Rockwell Museum, which opened in Stockbridge in 1969 (and moved to its current location in 1993), and at other major institutions, notably the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, which organized the exhibition "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People," in 1999.