Professor Donald Elder: Fifty Greatest Americans- Norman Rockwell

Jul 17, 2015 by


An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Fifty Greatest Americans- Norman Rockwell

Michael F. Shaughnessy  –

1) Professor Elder, in the realm of art, and Americana, if you will, I can think of no other name than Norman Rockwell. When and where was he born and what were his early years like?

Norman Rockwell was born in New York City on February 3, 1894. He attended public school in New York until he was 14, and then he began to study at the Chase Art School one day a week. During his sophomore year, Rockwell dropped out of school and began to study art full time, first at the National Academy of Design and then at the Art Students League. Success came to him at a young age; when he was only 18, he was offered the opportunity to provide an illustration for a book by Carl Claudy. This led to an offer by the magazine Boys’ Life to become a staff artist. Impressed with his work, the magazine promoted him to art director. In that capacity, he produced his first cover for the magazine (titled “Scout at the Wheel”) in 1913. During his three years as the art director for Boys’ Life, Rockwell would produce a number of other illustrations for the front cover of the magazine.

2) When did he first get on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post? What was the initial reaction to his work?

In 1915, the Rockwell family moved to the New York City suburb of New Rochelle. Their neighbor there was Clyde Forsythe, who worked as a cartoonist for The Saturday Evening Post. Encouraged by Forsythe, Rockwell journeyed to Philadelphia to offer a painting to the magazine for consideration as a front cover illustration. Impressed by his work, his submission was accepted. Titled “Mother’s Day Off,” it appeared on the cover of the May 20, 1916 issue. Reaction to his illustration was extremely positive, and Rockwell soon submitted more of his work to the magazine. By the end of the year, The Saturday Evening Post had used illustrations of his eight times. During the course of his involvement with the magazine, which ended in 1964, Rockwell’s art would grace the front cover 323 times.

3) His pictures, paintings of the American family are unsurpassed. What was his own family like?

Sadly, the reality of Rockwell’s personal life was not nearly as idyllic as the one he portrayed through his art. His first marriage ended in divorce, and his second wife required a significant amount of psychiatric care before she died of a heart attack in 1959. Rockwell himself regularly consulted a psychiatrist.

Perhaps the most fitting illustration of Rockwell’s personal life comes from a comment that his psychiatrist supposedly made to him. According to his psychiatrist, Rockwell portrayed happiness but could not live it.

4)  I suspect that every great writer, artist, is asked the same question-“Where do you get your inspiration?”  Did Normal Rockwell ever write about this topic or give interviews in this regard?

First and foremost, Rockwell was influenced by his father. Although the elder Rockwell worked a regular schedule during the week, he would devote a good deal of time on Saturdays and Sundays to painting. In his autobiography, Rockwell also credited another aspect of his upbringing for his later success in the art world.

Because his family was relatively affluent, the Rockwells were able to escape the heat of New York City and spend their summers on farms in the country. These experiences were good ones for Rockwell, and he believed that they helped to shape his perspective in later life. Indeed, he said that “these summers had a lot to do with what I painted later on.”

Another influence clearly came from his relationship with religion. His family attended church regularly while he was growing up, and the religious imagery found in many of his illustrations can definitely be traced back to this experience.

5) I suspect that his work has covered decades.  What were his most productive periods and what were his later years like?

Unlike many artists, Rockwell never had an unproductive period. He was remarkably steady in his artistic output, and the quality of his work remained high. The only exception to this came in the years immediately after Rockwell’s first marriage ended and his second began. Of his most famous works, none date from that time span. But even though his work may not have been noteworthy during the 1930s, he nevertheless was productive.

He continued to draw and paint into his early 80s, and by the time of his death in 1978 he was credited with creating over 4,000 works of art.

6) A summary statement if you will about this great American painter, who has captured the heart, and spirit of this great country.

Rockwell was a great American painter in every sense of the phrase. During the First World War, he enlisted in the US Navy, and during the Second World War he produced paintings illustrating the concepts embodied in “The Four Freedoms” that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had identified as the central tenets of what the Allies were fighting for.

But Rockwell was not a mere jingoist. Instead, he would also use his art to show challenges that the nation was facing. One of his most famous paintings is of an African-American girl named Ruby Bridges, who in 1960 had to be escorted by federal marshals to her grade school in New Orleans.

Rockwell’s painting, which appeared as a centerfold in a 1964 issue of Look magazine, shows Bridges walking with her guardians, but only Bridges is shown full figure. By contrast, the images of the marshals are cropped at their shoulders. Titled “The Problem We All Live With,” this painting is one of the most effective depictions of the struggle the nation was experiencing regarding civil rights. Rockwell knew that this might aggravate a portion of his audience, but he felt that he needed to make a statement about an important issue. Rockwell is thus the rare artist who not only reflected public attitudes, but also helped through his art to shape them.

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