Biography of Norman Rockwell

A Popular American Painter and Illustrator

Norman Rockwell in front of his work

Jonathan Blair/Getty Images

Norman Rockwell was an American painter and illustrator best-known for his Saturday Evening Post covers. His paintings depict real American life, filled with humor, emotion, and memorable faces. Rockwell shaped the face of illustration in the mid-20th century and with his prolific body of work, it's no wonder he's called "America's Artist."

Dates: February 3, 1894–November 8, 1978

Rockwell's Family Life

Norman Perceval Rockwell was born in New York City in 1894. His family moved to New Rochelle, New York in 1915. By that time, at age 21, he already had a foundation for his art career. He married Irene O'Connor in 1916, though they would divorce in 1930.

That same year, Rockwell married a school teacher named Mary Barstow. They had three sons together, Jarvis, Thomas, and Peter and in 1939, they moved to Arlington, Vermont. It was here that he got a taste for the iconic scenes of small-town life that would make up much of his signature style.

In 1953, the family moved a final time to Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Mary passed away in 1959.

Two years later, Rockwell would marry for the third time. Molly Punderson was a retired teacher and the couple remained together in Stockbridge until Rockwell's death in 1978.

Rockwell, The Young Artist

An admirer of Rembrandt, Norman Rockwell had a dream of being an artist. He enrolled in several art schools, starting with The New York School of Art at 14 before moving on to The National Academy of Design when he was just 16. It wasn't long before he moved on to The Arts Students League. 

It was during his studies with Thomas Fogarty (1873–1938) and George Bridgman (1865–1943) that the young artist's path became defined. According to the Norman Rockwell Museum, Fogarty showed Rockwell the ways of being a successful illustrator and Bridgman helped him out with his technical skills. Both of these would become important elements in Rockwell's work.

It did not take long for Rockwell to start working commercially. In fact, he was published many times while still a teenager. His first job was designing a set of four Christmas cards and in September 1913, his work first appeared on the cover of Boy's Life. He continued working for the magazine through 1971, creating a total of 52 illustrations.

Rockwell Becomes a Well-Known Illustrator

At the age of 22, Norman Rockwell painted his first Saturday Evening Post cover. The piece, titled "Boy with Baby Carriage" appeared in the May 20, 1916, issue of the popular magazine. Right from the start, Rockwell's illustrations carried that signature wit and whimsy that would make up his entire body of work. 

Rockwell enjoyed 47 years of success with the Post. Over that time he provided 323 covers to the magazine and was instrumental in what many called "The Golden Age of Illustration." One could say that Rockwell is easily the best-known American illustrator and most of this is due to his relationship with the magazine.

His depictions of everyday people in humorous, thoughtful, and sometimes wrenching scenarios defined a generation of American life. He was a master at capturing emotions and in observing life as it unfolded. Few artists have been able to capture the human spirit quite like Rockwell.

In 1963, Rockwell ended his relationship with the Saturday Evening Post and started a ten-year stint with LOOK magazine. In this work, the artist began to take on more serious social issues. Poverty and civil rights were at the top of Rockwell's list, though he did dabble in America's space program as well.

Important Works by Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell was a commercial artist and the amount of work he produced reflects that. As one of the most prolific artists in the 20th century, he has many memorable pieces and everyone has a favorite. A few in his collection do stand out, though.

In 1943, Rockwell painted a series of four paintings after hearing President Franklin D. Roosevelt's State of the Union address. "The Four Freedoms" addressed the four freedoms Roosevelt spoke of in the midst of World War II and the paintings were appropriately titled "Freedom of Speech," "Freedom of Worship," "Freedom from Want," and "Freedom from Fear." Each appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, accompanied by essays from American writers.

That same year, Rockwell painted his version of the famous "Rosie the Riveter." It was another piece that would fuel patriotism during the war. In contrast, another well-known painting, "Girl at the Mirror" in 1954 shows the softer side of being a girl. In it, a young girl compares herself to a magazine, throwing aside her favorite doll as she contemplates her future.

Rockwell's 1960 work entitled "Triple Self-Portrait" gave America a look into the quirky humor of the artist. This one depicts the artist drawing himself while looking in the mirror with paintings by the masters (including Rembrandt) attached to the canvas. 

On the serious side, Rockwell's "The Golden Rule" (1961, Saturday Evening Post) and "The Problem We All Live With" (1964, LOOK) are among the most memorable. The earlier piece spoke to international tolerance and peace and was inspired by the forming of the United Nations. It was gifted to the U.N. in 1985. 

In "The Problem We All Live With," Rockwell took civil rights on with all his painterly might. It is a poignant picture of little Ruby Bridges flanked by the headless bodies of U.S. marshals escorting her to her first day of school. That day marked the end of segregation in New Orleans in 1960, a monumental step for a six-year-old to take on.

Study Norman Rockwell's Work

Norman Rockwell remains one of the most beloved painters in America. The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts was established in 1973, when the artist gave most of his life's work to the organization. His goal was to continue to inspire arts and education. The museum has since become home to over 14,000 works by 250 other illustrators as well.

Rockwell's work is often loaned out to other museums and frequently becomes part of traveling exhibitions. You can view Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post work on the magazine's website as well.

There is no shortage of books that study the artist's life and work in great detail. A few recommended titles include:

  • Claridge, Laura. Norman Rockwell: A Life. New York: Random House, 2001.
  • Finch, Christopher. Norman Rockwell: 332 Magazine Covers. New York: Artabras Publishers, 1995.
  • Gherman, Beverly and Family Trust Rockwell. Norman Rockwell: Storyteller With A Brush. New York: Atheneum, 2000 (1st ed.).
  • Rockwell, Norman. Norman Rockwell: My Adventures As an Illustrator. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1988 (Reissue edition).
  • Rockwell, Tom. The Best of Norman Rockwell. Philadelphia & London: Courage Books, 2000.
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Esaak, Shelley. "Biography of Norman Rockwell." ThoughtCo, Oct. 18, 2021, Esaak, Shelley. (2021, October 18). Biography of Norman Rockwell. Retrieved from Esaak, Shelley. "Biography of Norman Rockwell." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).