Norman Rockwell, 84, who died in his sleep Wednesday night at his home in Stockbridge, Mass., painted America as millions of Americans would like to be. He was the artist his countrymen knew and loved best.
In a career that spanned more than 60 years, he illustrated more than 300 covers for the old Saturday Evening Post magazine and did Boy Scout calendars for years and years and countless other pictures. They became as much as a part of the American scene as the life they depicted.
"He didn't die of anything except being 84 years old," said his wife, Molly. He had been in ill health for the past two years.
Mr. Rockwell's association with the Saturday Evening Post spanned more the 45 years. The first of his covers appeared in 1916, and the last in 1963. The latter was a black-bordered portrait of President John F. Kennedy that was used a month after the president's assassination.
In 1969, he painted President Richard M. Nixon. That picture hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. He did Lyndon B. Johnson for the Saturday Evening Post, painting a picture the late president said he liked better than the Peter Hurd portrait that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was another Rockwell subject for the magazine.
But painting president was a deviation from Mr. Rockwell's usual genre. His subject usually were ordinary people in situations immediately recognizable: a grinning schoolboy with a black eye sitting outside the principal's office; a Thanksgiving scene of an old woman and a young boy saying grace in a greasy spoon restaurant while truck drivers gawk; a tow-headed World War II paratrooper returning home to a wildly happy reception of family and friends; and of course, "Willie Gillis," the gangling small-town boy whom he took through the war from induction station to homecoming.
His popular appeal was so strong, according to one former Saturday Evening Post editor, that a Rockwell cover was good for the sale of 50,000 to 75,000 extra copies of the magazine on newsstands.
What he produced one reviewer described as "what middle-class America believed was the way it lived."
A tenderheated painter with a photographic eye, Rockwell might be called an idealizing realist. All his works were sugared by a kind of psychic censorship. Unlike Andrew Wyeth who may give us morbid pictures, unlike the photorealists whose scenes are snapshot bland, Mr. Rockwell chose to drench us in affectionate benevolence.
"As I grew up and found that the world wasn't the perfectly pleasant place I had thought it to be, I unconsciously decided to compensate," he wrote. "So I painted only the ideal aspects of life - pictures in which there were no drunken slatterns or self-centered mothers, in which, on the contrary, foxy grandpas played baseball with the kids . . . The people in my pictures aren't mentally ill or deformed. The situations they get into are commonplace, everyday situations, not the agonizing crises and tangles of life."
Mr. Rockwell was illustrating the Boy Scouts' Hike Book before the New York Armory Show of 1913, which introduced this country to the revolutionary new art of Europe.
His training was academic, and like the neoclassical sculptors of the 19th century, Mr. Rockwell understood the muscles, bones and sinews that lie beneath the skin. The people in his pictures, like so many smiling statues, seem too good to be true, but Mr. Rockwell always gave them superbly painted props. In painting, as in other things, Americans appreciate precision and high technology, and Mr. Rockwell, like his predecessors John Singleton Copley in the 18th century and Thomas Eakins in the 19th, detailed his painting with extraordinary care.
He was a stickler for accuracy. Before he portrayed Martha Washington, he went to Valley Forge. Mr. Rockwell went to Hannibal, Mo., and there bought up old clothes before he dressed his models for his illustrations for Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Mr. Rockwell, who began working with the camera in the 1930s, was in some ways a precursor of the popular photorealists who flourished in the 1960s.
When Mr. Rockwell painted worn shoes, one knew how old they were. He liked to pose his actors against well painted backdrops that, closing off deep space, seem somehow stageset flat.
His pictures often tell us mild jokes, but the jokes came early. His stories were well told in his preliminary charcoal sketches, but then he set to work polishing details, tightening compositions, demonstrating once again his admirable skill. Mr. Rockwell, for example, like to show us colors as they might be seen first through one, and then through two, transparent panes of glass.
Mr. Rockwell had his flaws.He could not paint sexy women. "I used to try," he said, "but when I'd finished, they all looked like fine wives and mothers."
Toward the end of his long career he let his works be peddled for high prices in mass-produced reproductions, and his once-high standards dropped.
Before he was 15, Mr. Rockwell enrolled in the National Academy of Design, where he and two other youths signed a vow, in blood, never to make more than $50 a week and to strive for the highest in art.For most of his long life, Mr. Rockwell, by his own lights, did his best to keep the last half of that vow.
But art critics virtually ignored Mr. Rockwell. He was, they said, a producer of photographic corn. ("I don't paint photographs," he countered, "I create them.") There were some laudatory voices, however. Paul Richard, The Washington Post's art critic, wrote of an exhibition of Mr. Rockwell's work at the Corcoran Galley in 1972, "One reason why America, while liking Rockwell a lot, looks down on him is because he is at once clearer-sighted and kinder than the rest of us, and that is hard to take."
Perhaps Mr. Rockwell's best known work was a series of four paintings done for the Saturday Evening Post in 1943, titled "The Four Freedoms" (of speech, of worship, from want, from fear), which the Treasury Department sent on tour of the country to help the sale of war bonds. They sold nearly $135 million worth. The originals were first shown here in Washington, at Hecht's, and more than 10,000 people lined up outside the store on opening day.
Mr. Rockwell continued to do some paintings in his latter years, but his outlets - the big, general circulation magazines - had disappeared. The last was Look, which folded in 1971, and which he joined after The Saturday Evening Post turned to "sophisticated muckraking."
The list of other magazines for which he did covers and illustrations is a necropolis of famous periodicals: the old, old Life, Judge, Leslie's, Women's Home Companion, St. Nicholas, Youth's Companion, and American Boy's Life, where he had his first regular job - art director for $50 a month.
Mr. Rockwell was born at 130rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue in New York on Feb. 10, 1894. His father, J. Waring Rockwell, represented a Philadelphia cotton broker in New York and was an amateur painter. His mother, Ann Mary Hill, was the daughter of a man whom Mr. Rockwell described as "an impoverished painter of animals, potboilers and houses."
When he was 10, Mr. Rockwell's family moved to Mamaroneck, N.Y. It was during this period that he began attending the National Academy of Design in New York twice a week and school in Mamaroneck as well.
Mr. Rockwell found the acadmy too academic, and at age 16 he got a scholarship to the Art Students League quitting high school in his second year when he did. He received no further formal education.
Mr. Rockwell was still studying at the league when he got his first job, illustrating a series of children's books called "Tell Me Why Stories." On the strength of this work he was hired by Boy's Life in 1912, got himself a studio, and had a business card printed. It read, "NORMAN P. ROCKWELL: Artist, Illustrator, Leterer, Cartoomist; sign painting Christmas cards, calendars, magazine covers, frontispieces, still life, murals, portraits, layouts, design, etc." He kept the "illustrator" tag for the rest of his life.
By 1916, Mr. Rockwell felt ready to tackle the Saturday Evening Post, the most prestigious magazine market in the business, but edited by the redoubtable George Horace Lorimer, who ran the magazine with an iron hand.
He bought himself a gray herring bone tweed suit and went to Philadelphia, where the Post had its offices.
He did not see Lorimer, but the editor approved two paintings for covers and three covers sketches, the beginning of a relation with the magazine that lasted until the Post, in a desperate battle to stay alive in the 1960s, changed its style and content and no longer had a place for work such as Norman Rockwell's.
Mr. Rockwell went back to New York after his first post sales, proposed to a schoolteacher named Irene O'Connor who lived in the same boarding house, and married her. The marriage lasted 14 years before they were divorced.
In his disarming autobiography, "Norman Rockwell: My Life as an Illustrator." published in 1960, he tells about his first marriage: "We just didn't love each other, sort of went our own ways. She didn't take interest in my work; after a while her mother and two brothers and a sister came to live with us. Well, I guess you see what I mean . . . She was a very pretty girl, brown hair, blue eyes."
During World War I, Mr. Rockwell enlisted in the Navy after eating bananas and doughnuts and drinking water all one afternoon in the recruiting office so that he could make the minimum required weight. He was 5 feet 11, and weighed 115 pounds.
The Navy intended to make use of Mr. Rockwell as a painter of insignia on airplanes, but the transport that was taking him and others overseas turned back at a submarine alarm off New York and landed at Charleston, S.C. Mr. Rockwell spent the war in the Charleston Navy Yard, drawing cartoons and doing layouts for the base newspaper. During his free time, he still did covers for the Post and Life and illustrations for other magazines. An officer once told him, only half-jokingly, that he was making more money than the commander of the base.
After the war's end, money never again was a problem. He had a contract and did covers for the Post on a regular basis. In some years, he did 9 or 10 covers - one every six weeks or so. Mr. Rockwell also was much in demand by advertising agencies, did illustrations for other publications, and some memborable pictures for special Heritage Press editions of Mark Twain's "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn." It was for the Heritage project that Mr. Rockwell went to Hannibal, Mo., Twain's home town.
In the 1960s, Mr. Rockwell turned to harsher themes to match the turbulent times. He painted a picture of three slain civil rights workers in the South and another of a black child - her eyes wide with fear - on her way to a segregated school in the company of four U.S. marshals.
"For 47 years, I portryaed the best of all possible worlds - grandfathers, puppy dogs - things like that," he said in an interview at the age of 75. "That kind of stuff is dead now, and I think it's about time."
While he worked from studios in New York City and New Rochelle, N.Y., Mr. Rockwell more or less stuck to professional models when he painted. But in 1939, he moved to Arlington, Vt., where the townsfolk became the people who filled his canvases, as did the resident of Stockbridge, Mass., where he had lived since 1942.
Within a year of his divorce from his first wife, Mr. Rockwell married Mary Rodes Barstow, whom he had met in Hollywood. They had three sons, Jarvis, Thomas and Peter. The second Mrs. Rockwell died in 1959. In 1961, he married Mary L. Punderson, a retired teacher. She and his sons survive him.