Photorealism by Illustrious Artist Norman Rockwell
Norman Rockwell’s rosy illustrations of small town American life looked so photographic because his method was to copy photographs that he conceived and meticulously directed, working with various photographers and using friends and neighbors as his models. Norman Percevel Rockwell (February 3, 1894 – November 8, 1978) was a 20th century American painter and illustrator. His works enjoy a broad popular appeal in the United States, where Rockwell is most famous for the cover illustrations of everyday life scenarios he created for The Saturday Evening Post magazine over more than four decades. His amazing photo-realism techniques comes directly from the pictures he took. It is absolutely an honor to share his works in this article.
To the millions of Americans whose lives were touched by his work, he is the best known and best loved illustrator of the twentieth century. For nearly seven decades, Norman Rockwell chronicled on canvas the heart and soul of America. In many of his best-known works he visually idealized the clean, simple country life of his childhood. In others he introduced middle America to the products of progressive urban life: the telephone, radio, electrical lighting, television, airplane travel, and the space program. Later in life, he devoted himself to more serious subjects: civil rights, the war on poverty, and the Peace Corps.
Norman Rockwell was born in New York City on February 3, 1894. As a child, he was drawn to country life: delighting in the summers his family spent on an upstate New York farm and their eventual move to Mamaroneck, New York.
He discovered that he had a natural talent for drawing. Since he wasn’t built for athletics, he decided to work toward the goal of becoming an illustrator. In 1909 he left high school and enrolled full time in the National Academy of Design. Soon after, he switched to the Art Students League, which was the most progressive school of that time. There he studied under George Bridgeman who tutored him in the rigorous technical skills he relied on throughout his career.
Unlike most illustrators, Rockwell didn’t have to face the usual hardships. His work always sold. At fifteen, he painted and sold four Christmas cards. He began a successful freelance career illustrating. He did ads for Heinz Baked Beans, two books for the Boy Scouts of America, and numerous magazine illustrations. Three years later, he was hired as an illustrator for Boy’s Life. Within a few months, he was promoted to art director. He only held the position for a few years, but the relationship he established with the Boy Scouts lasted for the rest of his life.
Rockwell established his own studio in 1915 with cartoonist Clyde Forsythe. From this New Rochelle studio, he worked for popular magazines of the day: Country Gentleman, Literary Digest and St. Nicholas. The next year, he painted his first of 321 covers for the Saturday Evening Post, “Boy with Baby Carriage.” Rockwell used one model for all three boys featured in the illustration. It best displayed his talent to create a variety of characters from the same subject.
Detractors who take the time to study his work are surprised to find that it doesn’t lack in inspirational depth, despite its accessibility, yet, in most art history textbooks, his work is not included along with another twentieth-century illustrator, Andrew Wyeth.
He is not hailed for his contribution to the visual history of America as are Remington and Sargent. There are signs, however, that he will eventually be counted amongst the great twentieth-century American artists. There is a diverse group of Rockwell collectors—the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Smithsonian, The National Portrait Gallery, the Corcoran Gallery and Steven Spielberg.
The simple eloquence of his familiar style belies his painstaking creative process. Each painting began by carefully setting up the scene and photographing it or sketching it from life. After a series of black-and-white pencil sketches, he would do color studies. The final oil painting would invariably include the excruciatingly minute details that make his work nearly impossible to forge.
And like other masters, Rockwell had a unique talent for uncovering the everyday, human side of even his most famous subjects. He preferred common faces. He compared the excitement he felt painting the face of a successful person to a slab of warm butter. He readily admitted that the America he depicted was the country he hoped it could be, and considered his pre-1960s work to be more escapist than realist. There are few artists who better exemplify the dichotomy between high and popular art in the twentieth century than the man who gave Americans an endearing and enduring vision of themselves.
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