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Norman Rockwell's Painting Process

His Going and Coming , a two-panel portrait of a family en route to and from a summertime trip to a lake, is a veritable primer on the lost art of unostentatious living. An ancient sedan—no doubt the only car the family owns—is loaded up with Dad, Mom, four young kids, the family dog, and dour old Grandma in the back. Lashed to the roof are a weathered rowboat with its name, skippy, on the hull , its oars, and a tatty beach umbrella. No on-site rentals or impulse purchases from the nearest L. Bean outlet for this crew; everything, Grandma included, seems to have been pulled from a mildewy storage space.

Norman Rockwell

And yet the story is essentially one of contentment: of a fulfilling if frazzling day out. From the mids onward, Rockwell orchestrated elaborate photo shoots of his models in various poses and setups, resulting in images that, though they were meant only to be studies, are compelling in their own right. First came brainstorming and a rough pencil sketch, then the casting of the models and the hiring of costumes and props, then the process of coaxing the right poses out of the models Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera is rife with priceless shots of the artist pulling faces and hamming it up to demonstrate the effect he wants , then the snapping of the photo, then the composition of a fully detailed charcoal sketch, then a painted color sketch that was the exact size of the picture as it would be reproduced for instance, the size of a Post cover , and then, and only then, the final painting.

It scares me. Yet Rockwell was no more a man of simple vision than he was the house artist of the right wing.

Rockwell would have been the first to tell you that the pictures he painted were not meant to be taken as a documentary history of American life during his time on earth, and least of all as a record of his life. He was a realist in technique, but not in ethos.

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Rockwell did not himself have a remotely Rockwell-esque childhood. Though his tweedy self-presentation as an adult suggested a man raised in hardy, ascetic small-town New England with maple syrup running through his veins, he was, in actuality, a product of New York City. His father, Waring, was the office manager at a textile firm, and his mother, Nancy, was an invalid and probable hypochondriac.

Neither of them had much time for Norman and his older brother, Jarvis not to be confused with the son Rockwell would later give that name , and Rockwell flatly stated later in his life that he was never close to his parents, nor could he even remember much about them. While young Norman got up to the same high jinks as other city kids at the turn of the century—climbing telegraph poles, playing on stoops—neither at the time nor in retrospect did he find urban life idyllic. His family moved for a spell to the village of Mamaroneck, in suburban Westchester County, but then returned to the city, this time to a boardinghouse, because his by then far-gone mother could no longer abide housework.

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The boarders with whom the adolescent Rockwell was forced to take his meals, a motley collection of frowsy malcontents and shady transients, were almost as traumatizing to him as the vacant-lot vagrants. However, Rockwell had nothing but pleasant memories of the modest vacations his family went on in his early childhood, which were spent upstate on farms whose owners took in summer boarders to earn a little extra money.

But we never did things like that in the country. The clean air, the green fields, the thousand and one things to do … got somehow into us and changed our personalities as much as the sun changed the color of our skins.

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The summers I spent in the country as a child became part of this idealized view of life. Those summers seemed blissful, sort of a happy dream. Except heads up, here comes the point of the whole digression later on in my paintings. This is the essence of the whole Norman Rockwell ethos.


From a fleeting experience of life at the closest it would ever get to perfect, he extrapolated an entire world. It was an atypical world for an artist to inhabit, since it focused on the positive to the near exclusion of the negative—an inversion of the outlook favored by the art-crit hegemony of his day, which tended to be more kindly disposed toward artists whose work depicted the turbulence and pain of the human condition. From an early age, he had impressed his friends with his knack for drawing. Four years later, he created a trust to preserve his legacy, entrusting his works to the institution.

In he did the same with his studio and its contents. While best known for an optimistic view of human nature, some of his most poignant pieces come from the s, when he was suffering most. Dwight D.

Norman Rockwell

Eisenhower , John F. Kennedy , Lyndon B. Insight, optimism and good humour are the hallmarks of his artistic style. His vivid and affectionate portraits of our country and ourselves have become a beloved part of the American tradition. Rockwell passed away at the age In , Rockwell was named the official state artist of Massachusetts. I think Rockwell is the stand-out in an age of great illustrators, because he never settled for a formula.

Milano, Italy: Skira, Finch, Christopher and Norman Rockwell. New York: Abbeville Press, Gherman, Beverly. Norman Rockwell: Storyteller with a Brush. Mecklenburg, Virginia M. Plunkett, Stephanie Haboush and Magdalen Livesey. Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers, Reed, Walt. The Illustrator in America,