“I paint life as I would like it to be,” Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) wrote in his autobiography. “The view of life I communicate in my pictures excludes the sordid and the ugly.” And yet, paradoxically enough for an artist whose stated intention was the idealization of people and events, his paintings and illustrations achieved for him a reputation as one of art’s most skillful realists.
Born and educated on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Rockwell studied at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League, working as an illustrator of children’s books before being hired as a cover artist for The Saturday Evening Post in 1916. The widespread circulation achieved by his nostalgic, sentimental, witty images of average citizens engaged in everyday pursuits contributed to the mythos of the common man in America. There were families who worked and played and fought and prayed together; there were people in every size and shape and from every walk of life, captured in an instant that suggested a narrative. With the chords of stability and optimism they struck throughout the turbulence of the 20th century, Rockwell’s characters became beloved icons of aspiration–rose-tinted mirrors of the American Populist Dream.
Of these genre scenes, all rich in emotion and richly accomplished in technical detail and handling, none achieved more universal acclaim than Rockwell’s 1943 series called Four Freedoms. Echoing the themes of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address, they were “Freedom of Speech,” “Freedom of Worship,” “Freedom from Want,” and “Freedom from Fear.” Published first in the Post, the original canvases were exhibited throughout the country as part of the U.S. Treasury’s War Bond drive, and reproductions by the millions made their way into homes, schools, and civic buildings, articulating a message of solidarity, pride, and hope that served as a national inspiration.
After World War II, Rockwell and his family moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where he spent the last 25 years of his life and where a museum now houses the quintessential documents of Americana that are his artistic legacy.
–Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing
Photo: Norman Rockwell, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Digital ID cph 3b39771