Norman Rockwell was an unapologetic sentimentalist. In his 20th-century heyday, Rockwell’s harshest critics sniffed that he was overrated, less an artist than a popular commercial illustrator. Folksy depictions of everyday Americans, they said, were mostly a figment of his imagination and out of step with the times.
Rockwell, who died in 1978, at age 84, was no Rothko. His brand of innocent realism was the polar opposite to modernism. As an artist, he was like a poet whose verses always rhyme, an unpardonable sin to the snobs.
Rockwell shrugged it off. “The view of life I communicate in my pictures excludes the sordid and ugly,” he once said. “I paint life as I would like it to be.”
Those “ideal aspects” of life captured a shared cultural memory — featuring, as Rockwell put it, “foxy grandpas who played baseball with the kids and boys who fished from logs and got up circuses in the backyard.”
As such, Rockwell’s art was conceived in a spirit of unmitigated kindness; he created mirrors, reflecting small, precious moments meant to be instantly recognized. Ultimately, it was about optimism — perhaps the rarest of human commodities at this crossroads in history, when most Americans despair that the country is simply headed in the wrong direction.
In a national crisis, Rockwell rose to the occasion. During the darkest days of World War II, he raised citizen morale with his classic representations of the Four Freedoms — Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear, Freedom of Worship, and Freedom of Speech. That last “freedom” seems especially under siege in today’s unforgiving, internet-driven cancel culture.
Biographically speaking, Westchester owns a piece of Norman Rockwell. Much of his childhood was spent in Mamaroneck, in a five-bedroom house with a broad front porch at 415 Prospect Avenue, not far from Long Island Sound.
Mamaroneck in Rockwell’s day was, well, like a Rockwell painting — a semirural idyll. Here, the budding artist liked to draw pictures of pirates, sang in the choir at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, and delivered newspapers by bicycle to the rich folks who lived on Orienta Point.
But Rockwell performed poorly in school. In 1909, he entered Mamaroneck High School and began “three years of unremitting academic struggle,” according to Deborah Solomon, author of American Mirror — The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell.
He failed algebra and dropped out after his junior year. (The class of ’65 later gave him an honorary diploma. In return, he gave the district a painting titled Goin’ Fishin, which was later stolen, recovered and, though it came back damaged, must be worth a small fortune today.)
Rockwell was an awkward adolescent in Mamaroneck, but he got his footing in New Rochelle, where he launched his career as a popular illustrator of books and magazines. He lived and painted there for 25 years, often employing local residents to serve as models.
“Westchester owns a piece of Norman Rockwell. Much of his childhood was spent in Mamaroneck, in a five-bedroom house with a broad front porch…”
Leap forward many decades, to 2013. That year, a Rockwell work, Saying Grace, sold at auction for $46 million. Done in 1951, the painting shows a woman and a small boy sitting at a table in a crowded diner, praying over a modest meal. This was quintessential Rockwell — moving and unabashedly sentimental.
It almost goes without saying that everyone in Saying Grace was White, which was usually the case with Rockwell’s best-known paintings. As the civil rights era dawned, he was criticized for taking refuge in a fantasy world of the past while avoiding uncomfortable social issues, like American racism. Sadly, it’s highly predictable that in this present age of division and surly hyperbole, Rockwell would get slammed as a shill for White privilege.
Of course, he wasn’t that at all.
Later in life, he embraced social realism, perhaps most notably with the 1964 painting The Problem We All Live With, which depicted Ruby Bridges, a brave Black child with book in hand, being escorted by federal agents into a newly integrated elementary school in New Orleans.
That painting was displayed in the White House when Barack Obama was president.
Were he alive today, what would Rockwell paint? Where would he find hope? It’s hard to guess.
But we do know he had a tried-and-true formula, which he summed up this way: “If a picture wasn’t going very well, I’d put a puppy in it.”