As Norman Rockwell pictured it, the United States was a nation of tolerance, a country where families were devoted to the love and care of their wholesome-looking children, a place of patriotic people able to speak their minds and worship as they wanted, folks who upheld civic values and responsibilities.

That's the way Americans liked to envision themselves during the first half of the century. They weren't always like that, of course, nor was his own family.

"I paint life as I would like it to be," Rockwell once said, and he knew his detail-filled illustrations were a sort of pleasant propaganda.

Americans who saw the warm and humorous covers he did for the Saturday Evening Post also knew they weren't entirely realistic, but loved them anyway. Between 1916 and 1963, Rockwell painted 322 Post covers, making him the best-known illustrator in history.

On Wednesday at 8, PBS's "American Masters" offers a 90-minute look at the very complicated man and his work on "Norman Rockwell: Painting America."

The documentary coincides with an exhibit that runs until Jan. 30 at Atlanta's High Museum of Art, "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People."

The exhibit also will travel to Chicago, San Diego and Phoenix, and will be on display at Washington's Corcoran Museum of Art from June 17 to Sept. 10.

Producer Elena Mannes' 90-minute documentary provides a look at the man behind the canvas, using television clips, still photos, his own illustrations, recollections from his son and remarks from his former models and from admirers including artist Jamie Wyeth, filmmaker Steven Spielberg, advertising executive Jerry Della Femina, columnist Russell Baker and art critics Arthur Danto and Robert Hughes.

Much of it was shot at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., where he lived and worked after leaving his first home and studio in Arlington, Vt.

Norman Percival Rockwell (1894-1978) chose New England as his home after growing up in a series of New York City boarding houses, in a family that was not the model of the warm, loving people he would picture in his work. According to the documentary, his was a rather lonely childhood, and he disliked the city and its violence.

He left high school after two years to study at art schools. At 16, he began his career as an illustrator, and became art editor of Boys Life magazine at 19.

Rockwell's first marriage, to a teacher, foundered. His second wife was Mary Barstow, a California socialite 14 years younger than Rockwell. She was the mother of his children -- Thomas, Jarvis and Peter.

After living briefly in Paris, the family settled in Arlington, Vt., where Rockwell used his sons and local people as models. In the film, two women, one who had been his favorite model when she was a freckle-faced, pigtailed girl, the other a blonde teenager who became a soldier's girlfriend in his "Willie Gillis" series, discuss Rockwell's impact on their lives.

Of course, the impact was even greater for the artist's family, said Peter Rockwell, who in an interview jokingly referred to himself as "son as icon."

"Every three or four years, he'd pack us up and move to California," Peter Rockwell said. "We'd live there for part of a year. For four months once we lived in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel across from Grauman's Chinese Theater. I saw nine double features in my first seven days there. I just adored it."

In Vermont, Peter Rockwell went to a one-room school while his brothers, three and five years older, were away in boarding school. "My mother read to us all the time," he said. "She read to my father while he worked -- Tolstoy and Dostoyevski. He listened every Sunday to the Metropolitan Opera, and he listened to the New York Yankees."

But life was not as idyllic as it seemed. Rockwell was a workaholic, painting seven days a week and leaving family and financial management to his wife. In 1951, she suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized near Stockbridge, Mass. She never fully recovered.

"My father was the sort of artist who expected someone else to do everything but the art," his son said. "So my father had to change his ways, which he did, and get his situation in order.

"But it was difficult to deal with the notion that he could not have `a Norman Rockwell family.' One of the things that was a problem for our family was that my father had a very regular, very correct view of what a family should be. My father was in some sense infected by his own vision and his paintings."

Rockwell was not a church-going man, said his son, although "Saying Grace," a 1951 painting of a woman in a restaurant, and "Freedom to Worship" were among his best-known works. "Worship," along with "Freedom of Speech," "Freedom From Fear" and "Freedom From Want" (a family gathered for holiday dinner), all inspired by a speech by Franklin Roosevelt, were done as his contribution to the nation's war effort.

Over his prolific career, Rockwell produced covers and illustrations for several periodicals, including Boy's Life, Collier's, Life, and Look. His work was used in advertising campaigns and on calendars. He painted portraits of presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson and other world figures.

Until 1960, Rockwell rarely had painted a black American, mainly because the Saturday Evening Post had not wanted him to, says the film. But his third wife, Molly, encouraged his social conscience, and Rockwell's 1964 painting of Ruby Bridges being escorted to school by U.S. marshals became one of his most poignant works.

His sons went on to their own careers. Like his father, Jarvis Rockwell left high school for art school. Now 68, he creates what his brother calls "assemblages." Thomas, 66, a writer, penned "How to Eat Fried Worms" for children. Peter, 63, who has lived in Rome since 1962, became a sculptor and art teacher.

"I don't remember my father's reputation being too heavy on my shoulders," said Peter Rockwell, "but when my father started to get so famous in the late '60s, it was like visiting the Washington Monument. My first show was in Washington in 1968. I remember a man came in and looked exactly five seconds and stomped out of the gallery. If people came to see my work, expecting it to be like my father's, they got a disappointment. It's just not like his work."

Although the brothers form the Norman Rockwell Estate Licensing Company, Peter Rockwell said most of the copyrights are controlled by Curtis Publishing Co., owner of the Saturday Evening Post. Brown & Bigelow holds the rights to the calendars, and Hallmark owns the rights to Christmas cards.