Norman Rockwell, Illustrating America


by Terry Hogan


It was a Sunday.  My wife was restless.  She said she wanted to do something to mark the weekend as being different than the week.  I thought, well there was grass mowing, car washing, cleaning gutters, and trying to keep the landscaping from turning into a jungle.  But I was pretty sure that wasn't what she was talking about.  So, I responded with a cautious and neutral "Oh?"


That was enough.  I had a choice between going to a museum or going to another museum.  Being keenly insightful, I chose a museum.  It was the Indianapolis Children's Museum. It has a special exhibit on Norman Rockwell. I wasn't expecting much.  I knew who he was.  He was the guy that did the homey Midwestern illustrations for Post.     


I was wrong.  It was fascinating.  I never took the time to study the illustrations. Each cover was a one page story. Each cover was loaded with intricate details.  And not readily apparent in any one illustration, but with a little prompting from the exhibit, I began to see the same characters reappear in the Post covers.  I learned that many of the folks who appeared were not only real subjects, but were also friends, neighbors, his children, and even Norman Rockwell, himself.  In a few of the covers, if you look carefully in crowd scenes, you may, in fact, see the same face twice.  He painted in a small town in Vermont and had a limited population to draw from for models. Some of the settings were from the same Vermont town.  A barber shop, a mechanic shop, and others were real representations down to the smallest details.


During WWII, Norman Rockwell found a local model who apparently seemed to personify, at least to Rockwell, the young American male going off to war.  He was known as Willie Gillis for the magazine cover, but he was really Robert Buck, a young man that Rockwell met at a square dance in Arlington, Vermont. He first appeared on the cover of the Post on October 14, 1941 and could be found on about eight covers during the war. However, Rockwell lost his military model.  Buck joined the Navy and went to war.


If you have some old Post magazines in the attic or basement, dig them out.  You probably won't look at too many before you find a dog or two.  Most of the time the dog looks pretty familiar, although on some covers he seems to have longer hair than in others.  It was Norman's dog.  Compare the faces from cover to cover.  Look at the details in the paintings.   


Now what I'd like to do is to plaster the paper with digital copies of the illustrations to show examples of what I'm talking about.  But I dare not.  Stuff is copyrighted and I think the Post publishers are bigger than the Zephyr publisher.   So the best I can do is to sprinkle some photos of the exhibit where photography was explicitly allowed and hope that keeps us out of trouble.


Do you remember how long Norman Rockwell brought little glimpses of how we were, or at least how we wanted us to be?  His first illustration appeared on the Post cover on May 20, 1916 ("The Carriage").  It was a scene of a young lad pushing a wicker pram.  He was complete with a hat, coat and tie, and a baby bottle sticking out of his coat pocket.  Some other lads about his age, either going to or coming from a baseball game, were having some sport with his assignment. His last cover was the Egyptian President Nasser, published on May 25, 1963.


Excluding the portraits of famous leaders that he was encouraged to do toward the end of his relationship with Post; his covers told a story that was pretty obvious if we looked a little.  Some were funny. Some were poignant. Sometimes there were stories behind the story.  For example the November 4, 1939 Post cover showed a small town sheriff sitting on a chair, just outside a jail cell. He is holding a rifle across his lap and there is a dog at his feet. A young man is playing a harmonica, standing on the other side of the jail cell bars. The hidden story is that the sheriff model was, in fact, the local deputy sheriff, Harvey McKee who also was a Rockwell neighbor in Arlington, Vermont. Harvey posed for the painting while suffering from a broken collar bone and a broken left hand.  The swelling of the broken left hand is clearly visible in the painting, if you only take the time to look closely.  


It has been suggested that Rockwell is best known for the "Four Freedoms" illustrations he did for Post covers in 1943.  They sold a lot of magazines and were reprinted and widely distributed.  The Four Freedoms, each illustration with its own cover, were Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. They were obviously the right themes for the time, when America was fighting in Europe and in the Pacific.


But as much as Rockwell is none for the Post covers, he did quite a bit of other work.  If you look carefully, you may find Rockwell's illustrations in Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (Heritage Press).  Rockwell also did some commercial art for advertising for such companies as Fisk Tires, Interwoven Socks and Capitol Boilers. He also did a painting for 20th Century-Fox of the actress Jennifer Jones as Bernadette in the movie The Song of Bernadette.  It was widely distributed to market the movie and appeared in magazines, newspapers, and theater posters.


It has hard to figure out my favorite painting used in a Post Magazine cover.  I'm a new Rockwell fan and perhaps my choice will change over time, like learning to admire drier wines with experience.  But right now, my favorite Norman Rockwell has to be the March 6, 1954 ("Girl at the Mirror") cover.  It is a beautiful painting of a young girl sitting on a footstool, looking into a mirror at herself.  She is pensive, and pretty, with signs of a beauty yet to unfold.  On her lap is a page of a magazine showing some adult attractive woman.  It is clear why the young girl is studying her image so intently in the mirror.  The image is all the stronger by Rockwell's use of a bright light on the girl's image and her mirrored reflection and a darken background that emphasizes the focus of the subject.


If you ever hear someone, or even yourself, say that Rockwell was not an artist, but rather only an illustrator, go find the March 6, 1954 Post cover.


I guess my wife had a pretty good idea after all.  It certainly did separate the weekend from the week.  I learned, once again, how little I paid attention to my environment when I was young.  I guess I was busy doing at the cost of seeing.  As they said, "It is too bad that youth is wasted on the young."  Perhaps Rockwell missed a good theme for a cover.


If you are interested in seeing the Rockwell exhibit, it is at the Indianapolis Children's Museum located on North Meridian in Indianapolis. From Galesburg, find I-74 and go east about 250 miles and stop when you hit Indianapolis. The exhibit runs through the end of the year.


If you can't make Indianapolis, but would like to see what I'm writing about, I've provided some good references with both excellent text and photos on Norman Rockwell's illustrations of America.  But I should warn you, it may make a change in how you see.  Last weekend, I saw a Norman Rockwell cover topic along I-74.  It was a new shiny SUV with a new expensive boat and trailer, sitting along the side of the road.  The right trailer tire had gone flat and the driver had continued to run on it.  The tire was shredded. The thrill of the new SUV, boat and trailer had turned into a forlorn owner, sitting on the side of the road, apparently without a spare.     


There is a Rockwell illustration waiting just around the next corner, but you need to take the time to see and appreciate.  Life is just a Post Cover.




Anon. 1976. Norman Rockwell and The Saturday Evening Post. No publisher or publication date given, but copyrighted by both Post and Four S Productions, Inc. in 1976.


Finch, Christoper.1978. 102 Favorite Paintings by Norman Rockwell.  Crown Publishers, Inc. N.Y.


Guptill, Arthur. 1946.  Norman Rockwell Illustrator. Watson-Guptill Publications. N.Y.