Though better known for his work during World War II, as a young man Norman Rockwell contributed to the artistic canon of the Great War. These early works were emblematic of the deep patriotism that would characterize Rockwell through his entire career.
Rockwell was born on February 3, 1894 in New York City. Showing artistic talent at a young age, he was transferred from high school to the Chase Art School, now called Parsons the New School of Design, in New York City at the age of 14. He would later study at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League.
In 1913, the nineteen-year-old Rockwell became the art editor for Boys’ Life— a magazine published by the Boy Scouts of America. For the three years he held this position, Rockwell painted several covers, beginning with his first published magazine cover, “Scout at Ship’s Wheel,” appearing on the September 1913 edition.
At twenty, the Rockwell family moved to New Rochelle, New York, then an attractive community that was home to some of the country’s most famous artists of the time, including Charles Dana Gibson, famous for his “Gibson girls,” James Montgomery Flagg (“I Want YOU,” 1917), and Howard Chandler Christy (“Americans All!” 1919). The Leyendecker brothers, Joe (J.C.) and Frank, also lived in New Rochelle and would later become good friends of Rockwell. J.C. Leyendecker was a leading cover artist for The Saturday Evening Post, the magazine which Rockwell considered “the pinnacle.” Rockwell shared a studio with another Saturday Evening Post illustrator, Clyde Forsythe. With Forsythe’s help, Rockwell submitted his first successful cover painting to the Post in May 1916, titled “Mother’s Day Off.”
Spurred on by patriotism, Rockwell attempted to join the Navy in July 1918, however the twenty-four-year old was seventeen pounds under naval standards. With the military doctor’s approval and encouragement, Rockwell stuffed himself with bananas, doughnuts, and water in order to meet the minimum weight requirement. His naval duties proved little different from his civilian work, however; he was assigned to work for the internal publication of a naval base in Charlestown, South Carolina.
Rockwell’s largest contributions to the war effort ended up being artistic rather than martial. On August 17, 1918, Rockwell’s “Boy Showing off Badges” appeared on the cover of The Literary Digest. This illustration shows a young boy showing the badges he earned doing his part to help the war effort. Rockwell’s “Boy Showing off Badges” was used in a poster the same year for the Women’s Liberty Loan, with the title “And Now the Fighting Fourth.” It was the only poster Rockwell did during the Great War.
Rockwell also painted two other covers for The Literary Digest in 1918, both of which were related to the Great War. The other two were “Keep ‘Em Smiling” appearing on the November 9th issue and “In Redeemed Belgium” on the December 14th issue. Earlier that year, on March 30, Rockwell’s “Easter” appeared on the cover of Leslie’s, an image also relating to the war.
Rockwell’s paintbrush would prove to be a much more potent weapon during World War II. During the conflict, two out of every three magazine covers he painted were based on some aspect of the war, totaling more than two dozen of these patriotic cover in all. Wanting to do more to help the war effort, Rockwell came up with the idea for his Four Freedoms series in 1943. The series, inspired by Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address, would translate “those high-sounding intangibles, into simple everyday scenes of ordinary Americans enjoying them.” They included Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. A great deal of fanfare went along with the publication of the Four Freedoms. The Treasury Department agreed to participate in a series of Four Freedoms shows to sell war bonds across sixteen cities. The shows featured personal appearances by celebrities along with a display of the four original oils. Rockwell’s paintings were viewed by a total of 1,222,000 people who bought a total of $132,992,539 worth of war bonds.
Rockwell’s final cover for the Post was published in 1963, making a total of 322 original covers in his lifetime. For the next ten years, Rockwell painted for Look Magazine, where his work reflected his interests in civil rights, poverty, and space exploration. In 1977, Rockwell received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States of America’s highest civilian honor, for “vivid and affectionate portraits of our country.” Rockwell died November 8, 1978 of emphysema at the age of 84 in Stockbridge, MA— now the location of The Norman Rockwell Museum.
Claridge, Laura. Norman Rockwell: A Life. New York: Random House, 2001.
Walton, Donald. A Rockwell Portrait: An Intimate Biography. Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, Inc., 1978.
Wikipedia. “Norman Rockwell.” Accessed August 25, 2011.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Rockwell
IN THE COLLECTION
128L “And Now the Fighting Fourth,” 1918, by Norman Rockwell, Women’s Liberty Loan, framed, 10×14
#104 “Telling of the Lost Battalion,” print, framed, 8.5×8.5
“Boys Will Be—Men,” four paintings of Boy Scout activities by Norman Rockwell in the November 1918 issue of The Red Cross Magazine
The Literary Digest August 17, 1918, cover art by Norman Rockwell, “Boy Showing off Badges”
The Literary Digest November 9, 1918, cover art by Norman Rockwell, “Keep Them Smiling”
The Literary Digest December 14, 1918, cover art by Norman Rockwell, “In Redeemed Belgium”
Leslie’s March 30, 1918, cover art by Norman Rockwell, “Easter”