Monday, May 16, 2016


This weeks marks the 100th anniversary of Norman Rockwell's first painting for the Saturday Evening Post.

Rockwell's relationship with the Post continued for 47 years and included 323 covers.  It was one of the most important and remarkable creative associations of the 20th century.


At its peak, the Post enjoyed a circulation of 6.2 million readers.  People in small towns without a museum or library looked forward to receiving the Post cover each week; for some, illustrations in publications were their only contact with art.  People in those days before television or the internet lingered over the covers.   Rockwell had a far larger audience than Picasso. 

In what was called "the Century of the Common Man," Rockwell's covers helped to serve as glue for a nation by visualizing a common human nature through two World Wars and the Great Depression.

Rockwell's famous "Four Freedoms" first appeared in the Post
Rockwell didn't know it at the time, but his audience included some of the great image makers of the future.  His Post covers had a profound influence on Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, starting when they were young boys.  His covers taught the young film makers how to frame a story, prioritize the elements of a scene and lead the eye around a picture.  Said Lucas: "He was able to sum up the story and make you want to read the story, but actually understand who the people were, what their motives were, everything in one little frame."

Rockwell's high standards are truly inspiring.  He painted "100%" in gold on his easel to remind himself always to do his very best.      

The centennial of Rockwell's first cover is being celebrated this week by the Norman Rockwell Museum.


MORAN said...

An important anniversary. Thanks for reminding us.

Donald Pittenger said...

I just did a too-quick Google search to try to discover when the Post hit the 6 million circulation number. Couldn't find anything useful. That number seems awfully high, and publications, when trying to sell advertising, have been known to include readers who got pass-along copies ... family members, beauty shop customers, whatever ... to pad paid subscription and news stand sales numbers.

But the Post truly was the leading general-interest mag back when the USA population (I now put on my demographer hat) was about half what it is today. So to gauge its impact, one can take any circulation number from the mid-1950s and double it to get a feeling for its impact in today's context.

In case some younger readers have never seen a copy of the Post from its heyday, its content was basically a mix of short fiction and non-fiction along with cartoons and some other regular bits. And it was stuffed with ads.

As for Rockwell, in my family a Rockwell cover was often happily announced by whoever brought the Post in from the mailbox.

N C Freeman said...

It's worth remembering that Rockwell's Post covers were not technically illustrations, i.e., not visual depictions of a writer's scenes, but stand-alone narrative paintings that gave the viewer just enough information to construct a story for themselves. His ill-starred mentor J C Leyendecker painted 324 Post covers, and Rockwell is rumored to have purposely avoided exceeding his friend's total. The press run for a Post issue bearing a Rockwell cover was usually boosted by up to 200,000 copies.

David Apatoff said...

Donald Pittenger-- The Encyclopedia of American Journalism traces the history of The Post and claims the magazine reached its peak circulation in 1959 with 6.2 million readers. That number seems to have come from the Post but of course I can't verify it. I've seen other sources say circulation was "over 3 million." The point for me is that the Post was by far the largest circulation magazine (and the largest art gallery) in America, and sometimes in the world.

I think the experience you describe was shared by many families across the country. The Post was gone by the time I started collecting illustration tearsheets but I was able to scoop up dozens of issues from the 40s or 50s for ten cents apiece. The number and quality of illustrations was astounding.

NC Freeman-- Rockwell's Post covers were not "visual depictions of a writer's scenes" unless you agree that Rockwell was the writer, in which case they were. I had not heard that the Post boosted its print run for Rockwell covers but it makes perfect sense. Rockwell made a lot of money for the Post (and continued to make even more money for the buyers who snapped up the copyrights after the Post went out of business). It would've been nice if more of that money had made its way to Rockwell during his life.

Laurence John said...

the painting 'Saying Grace' seems to set the tone for much cinematography that followed decades later. it's almost as if he didn't so much influence future film makers like Spielberg or the Coens (which he obviously did) but that he, like Edward Hopper, was simply the first to nail a certain mise en scene, only with paint rather than light and film.

it seems that the natural heirs to Rockwell are working in film (including animation) and not in paint.

Sean Farrell said...

Rockwell was the last from the age of qualities to the age of quantification. He was the era of the common man, left behind with the rise of life measured by quantification. He was the era when non-verbal understandings were understood as expressions of thought embodied in being and not as some experiential reality, separate from thought. He was the era when people understood what it meant to be a person, functioning both verbally and nonverbally as thought and intention, before confusing and contradictory notions of non-intention. Rockwell was the simple integration of thought, experience and intention housed in the qualities of being human which the moderns so deeply deny and continue to hate.

Paul Sullivan said...

NC Freeman— You have touched on an interesting point. You maintain that Rockwell's cover paintings are not technically illustrations because are not "visual depictions of a writer's scenes." Within this limited definition of illustration, you are correct. But if that is the case, how are we to define paintings done for advertising, posters or calendars?

I believe most of Rockwell's work should be defined as advertising illustration. Advertising illustration is visual art for the purpose of persuasion—selling. A magazine cover is essentially a point of purchase ad for a magazine. However, in the case of Rockwell—and some other artists—the work has assumed a second life. It is now recognized for its excellence alone—beyond its original purpose. In that sense it now bears historical significance and approaches the status of fine art.

kev ferrara said...

I believe most of Rockwell's work should be defined as advertising illustration. Advertising illustration is visual art for the purpose of persuasion—selling. A magazine cover is essentially a point of purchase ad for a magazine.


This is like saying that movies are advertisements because the movie is being used to rent out the seats in the theater for 2 hours and maybe sell some poison from the refreshment stand. Or that a television program is an advertisement, because it gets you to watch an ad when it pauses its narrative.

The reality, it seems to me, is that Rockwell's work actually sells itself, and the ads and most of the interior content tags along for the ride. All great illustration, all great commercial art, is functioning the same way. As Art that has its own intrinsic value as an image. In other words, people were buying prints of the artwork with ads attached. Those ads, assuming the person has no interest in products, can simply be added in as part of the cost of the owning the magazine with the Art prints it holds within its binding.

This is something different than, say, a Sundblom or Loomis advertising illustration where the Art and the Ad are indistinguishable. Although, even there, people have been buying the original advertising paintings by Sundblom and Loomis as stand alone works of art for some time now. Which proves that these works indeed are selling themselves as well as Cocacola and wonderbread. So there is Art in them thar hills.

Paul Sullivan said...


I have no interest in debating the merits of Norman Rockwell's magnificent work. I was eleven years old when I first saw his great portrait of Eisenhower. It wasn't in a book or isolated behind a frame. It was on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. The copy of the magazine was sitting on a news stand in Edith's Sweet Shop with at least 35 other magazines screaming for attention. And it was doing what it was created to do. It was selling the Saturday Evening Post. It was functioning as a point of purchase ad for the magazine amid a lot of heavy competition.

That may sound like a lowly definition. I'm sorry but I can't do anything about that. "Point of purchase" advertising is a broad, general category. We can get confused when we appraise the merits of excellent illustration and want to deny the original reason for it being created—its original function.

So, yes—Norman was correct when he insisted upon calling himself an illustrator. Since its creation many his works have assumed an after-life that is far beyond their original intent. Some of his works—as an art critic for TIME put it—are little more than gags. They were meant to be just that. They were created to make us smile, to touch or hearts—to sell the SEP magazine. But, as artists, even those works fascinate us. However, some of his paintings—with time and understanding—have reached the status of fine art. Even beyond that—some of his paintings help define several eras of American life.

By the way, it would be good to be a little careful with the logic of your comparisons. A motion picture is a means of entertainment.
A Drew Struzan poster is an ad for a motion picture. And a theater with seats is a place to watch a motion picture. I think we can all agree on that. And who knows—some day people like us may be discussing the work of Drew Struzan.

What illustrator's work people are collecting has nothing to do with these points.


kev ferrara said...


I am not saying Rockwell's covers didn't serve the purpose of attracting the eye to the magazine. But any cover can visually scream for attention. We've been overrun by loud vacuous graphics, societally. It takes something more than that to hold the attention, and to move the soul of the viewer to the extent that they would be willing to shell out cash to possess the image.

I am drawing a distinction between the cover as billboard for its content, and the covers that have their own intrinsic artistic value, as evidenced by the increase in sales they cause.

Since Rockwell's covers didn't actually reflect or abstract the content of the specific issue of each magazine they covered in any real way, Rockwell's covers weren't actually billboards for the magazine. They definitionally didn't advertise the magazine's contents. They certainly didn't do what a Drew Struzan poster does, which is to create a heightened montage of the characters and major events (the content) of the film on offer with the purchase of a ticket.

Rather, clearly, a great many people were buying any given Saturday Evening Post for Rockwell's covers alone. In other words, the contents inside were a negligible element for them, essentially coming along with the purchase of the cover. That must be so, otherwise the sales numbers would be the same regardless of the cover artist.

My family in my grandmother's generation, like so many Rockwell fans back then, would remove the cover and hang them up in the kitchen or den, often framing them, and throwing away the rest of the magazine. This is not the fate of an ad.

Similarly, a million people bought the Conan paperback when Frazetta did the cover. By all accounts, a vanishingly small percentage of purchasers actually read the stories. Prior to Frazetta, Conan sold very little, probably accurately reflecting the actual market interest in these stories in written form.

When Frazetta's covers were sold as stand alone prints, hundreds of thousands were purchased. Similarly, Rockwell's work has sold phenomenally well as stand alone prints. Again, this is not the fate of mere "advertisements."

I think this all serves as evidence that the actual product being bought by Rockwell's and Frazetta's appreciators was not the bound up paper behind their covers. It is the covers themselves, as Art prints. The bound paper was just along for the ride.

And of course, art editors knew this well.

Richard said...

Pop at its best. Easily consumable, sub-textually persuasive, and crystallized for greatest effect.

I mean this in the best possible way -- exquisite execution by a master of emotional and ideological manipulation. I love this work. Some find it rather fascist (not here), but I think this is the duty of the crafted image: it is to sell (product, sentiment, ideology, etc.).

Sean Farrell said...

Richard, Kev made a fair defense. What is not obvious is that a handful of Rockwell's illustrations were highly sophisticated paintings, beyond being popular.

Your statement that some find it fascist, is most interesting in regards to what kind of people Rockwell's characters were and those today who judge his work as fascist. One looks at Rockwell's characters in focus, because that's how he looked at them. Rockwell's characters engage their environments; they fix flat tires, go swimming, look at others, talk, listen, read, think, care, laugh. Yes, Lucas puts it correctly, “He was able to sum up the story and make you want to read the story, but actually understand who the people were, what their motives were, everything in one little frame." Can you imagine a Rockwell character thinking, I will view this room full of people with a non-divisive peripheral vision and so experience a unity that only the sensory can provide? No, they would say, if they did at all, “Thou shalt not judge”.

That's what has changed since that era has passed. People today don't view their non-verbal understandings and verbal understandings as part of the same thought process and reality because they have been taught otherwise. Rockwell's people were defined in part by a handful of classic books which they either read or had impressed upon them through their environment, without which they would not have been the same people. They were also defined by their relationship with the land, the city, family, the outer world. People today are uprooted from their environments and don't define themselves the same way at all.

Richard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
cesare said...

just stumble across your blog, enjoying it immensely!


Tom said...

Interesting what you wrote in your pervious post David;

"Hitler believed the arts were a crucial tool for shaping public opinion. His government commissioned thousands of patriotic works and sponsored art competitions and festivals in villages and towns to reinforce his message with the public.”

An Hitler wrote "All propaganda has to be popular and has to accommodate itself to the comprehension of the least intelligent of those whom it seeks to reach.”

I like the title of the article on the bottom of the cover with the girl playing marbles with the boys, "communist wreckers in American labor,”. No covers with Tom Joad. It seems the captains of industry, like Hitler knew what kind of public they wanted also, an who better to portray it then Norman Rockwell. Gomer Pyle comes to mind, "Will gaiil-lee Sarge!’ Or Alexander Haig's famous quip ,”let them protest all they want as long as they pay their taxes.”

And who named it the century of the Common Man? Arron Copland? Who names century?

"The politicians are put there to give you the idea you have freedom of choice. You don't. You have no choice. You have owners. They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land, they own and control the corporations that've long since bought and paid for, the senate, the congress, the state houses, the city halls, they got the judges in their back pocket, and they own all the big media companies so they control just about all of the news and the information you get to hear. They got you by the balls.

They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying to get what they want. Well, we know what they want. They want more for themselves and less for everybody else. But I'll tell you what they don't want. They don't want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don't want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They're not interested in that. That doesn't help them.”
George Carlin

kev ferrara said...

Norman Rockwell is great. A pure good, a source of humanity, gentle humor and love for those who have the capacity to appreciate it where and as they find it.

Politics is pernicious, manipulative, destructive simple-minded bullshit that preys on our tribal instincts, our unhappiness and fears. Like cancer or heart disease, it doesn't matter how smart, talented, funny, or cultured we are, it can still find its way into the body, metastasizing and calcifying as it goes, overtaking eventually our humanity and poisoning the well.

How many millions are, as we speak, spending two or three hours a day sucking up the poison of politics, like a lonely hard drug user, and regurgitating it on anybody they are connected with, anybody who happens to step into or near their ideological flop house. This is the sadness of the addict; misery longs for company, users grasp for fellow users to justify their using.

Imagine if all those millions of people now wasting twenty hours a week, eighty hours a month, watching word-by-word, play-by-play the amateur-hour "breaking news" kabuki show actually did something useful with their time. Imagine what a billion man-hours a year could do if it was practically applied: What road wouldn't be perfectly paved? What house wouldn't be painted with a fresh coat? What elderly or ill person wouldn't have someone to get their groceries? How many young people will never become anything because they are addicted to the 24-7 cycle of political rage and righteousness, spitting venom on demand according to the dictates of their media sources?

A single man in India, Jadav Payeng, still living, has been planting trees on a barren island since 1979. One seed at a time, by hand, simply. The result, we now see, is he has single-handedly created a wondrous forest haven for birds, deer, tigers, and elephants where before there was none. This is what one unspoiled man can do. What one unpoisoned man can do. Imagine a thousand such men? A million boggles the senses.

No great artist was ever more charged up by politics than his own Art. Rockwell, through his simple dedication to his own sensibilities, left an amazing legacy to uplift the human spirit for as long as it and we still abide. Political addicts just leave ashes, their lifetimes burnt up in the fire of their own frustrations.

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John wrote, "it seems that the natural heirs to Rockwell are working in film (including animation) and not in paint."

You may be right. A lot of talent is flocking to moving pictures, and the talent that has remained in paint seems largely preoccupied with other directions. How do you think Rockwell's career affected that migration? I'm sure many artists looked at Rockwell's colossal achievement and decided they'd better find a different race to run.

Sean Farrell wrote, "Rockwell was the simple integration of thought, experience and intention housed in the qualities of being human which the moderns so deeply deny and continue to hate."

It's truly amazing to watch the moderns' hatred of Rockwell, and of the qualities he embodies. I can understand why Clement Greenberg and other theoreticians at the dawn of modern art felt compelled to attack him as a matter of principle, but they've had a long time to get over it, and accept Rockwell's work for its great value. In my opinion, their failure to do so is a reflection of their pervasive ignorance and narrow mindedness. The thing that now seems to be changing their minds is (not surprisingly) money. The big auction houses withdrew their aesthetic objections when they discovered they could sell Rockwells for tens of millions of dollars.

Cesare-- Thanks, and welcome!

David Apatoff said...

Paul Sullivan and Kev Ferrara-- I think placing pictures adjacent to words, movies or other objects creates a variety of relationships, one of which is that the picture helps to sell or promote whatever it's associated with. (Funny that no one thinks placing words next to a picture helps sell the picture).

I would say that putting a Rockwell cover on the SEP helped to market the magazine the same way that putting a Raphael or a Titian or a van Eyck painting over the altar in a cathedral helps to market religion.

Richard-- How does "pop at its best" compare to "painting at its best"?

Tom-- The "century of the common man" was a famous speech given by vice president Henry Wallace, in which he described "the march of freedom for the common man." His point was that in the 20th century, for the first time in history, education became available for huge numbers of the proletariat. Economic opportunity also became available to them. Political participation became available to them. His speech is available all over the internet and on youtube if you're interested.

I think your point that the Post had "No covers with Tom Joad" is well taken. The Post was able to maintain that huge readership in all four corners of the country by avoiding controversy and sticking to a conservative common core for its subject matter. There were some benefits to the country from that approach, because it focused on common aspects of human nature and helped glue the country together. However, there were some odious aspects as well. The Post didn't want to rock the boat on racism or communist witch hunts. (I've previously written about their rejection of a cover painting because the illustrator painted an African-American in the audience for a baseball game:

Laurence John said...

David: "How do you think Rockwell's career affected that migration? "

i don't think most young potential movie makers would even consider paint; the moving image (whether live action or animation) is THE popular visual-narrative medium now. painting has been relegated to a niche interest, and the main audience for gallery paintings / illustration is other painters and illustrators.

Richard said...

> 'How does "pop at its best" compare to "painting at its best"?'

Pop is perhaps best described as a specific concern, painting is a way to tackle many different concerns. 'Painting at its best' strikes me as a bit unintelligible then, painting is a means not an end.

I can't even say which is the proper way to view a painting:

If the end goal of painting was to produce a physical object of greatest beauty viewed intimately, the Pre-Raphaelites are not particularly successful.

I'd always loved Waterhouse's Ophelia. I had only ever seen it online. When it came to DC I was heartbroken to see the image inelegantly crumble with only a pace or two too many. It does not work as an object, only as a rendering, an illusion. The surface is completely dead.

If, however, the end goal of painting is viewing at a distance, impressionism falls behind the Pre-Raphaelites. The Pre-Raphaelites thrive under some artificial separation, while the Impressionists falter.

I was never much impressed with Monet (as a rendering, with separation). Then, I spent time intimately with his physical works. I won't say that I love them, but I have a much greater appreciation for them as art objects (sculptures?).

Richard said...

Do you think they are opposed?

chris bennett said...


Just for the record, Waterhouse's 'Ophelia' was the first painting (seen high up across a very large room in the Tate during a school outing) that touched me to such a degree I felt I was literally being given something. And when I saw the rest of his famous work in the flesh at a big show a couple of years back I was captivated by its physicality, and to this day I find myself often thinking of their surfaces and re-enjoying them.

With most of Monet's work, for me, it is exactly the other way around.

Just for the record.

N C Freeman said...

Ahem, getting back to Rockwell (boy this group loves tangents...), there's a juicy mystery surrounding one of Rockwell's contemporaries that I've never been able to solve. The work of Victor C Anderson bears striking similarities to RN's, in style, subject matter and, at his best, sheer painting skill- which is saying a lot. There's even a brief article about him on the Rockwell Museum's website, though no direct connection is suggested. I'm not sure who influenced whom, or if they shared a friendly acquaintance? Inquiries to the museum have gone unanswered....

Linda said...

I have always loved Norman Rockwell! Great post, thank you so much for sharing.

Fechangku Chen said...

I would like to thank the U.S. Army War College for agreeing to my request for sabbatical leave in order to write this book. I am particularly grateful to Professor Douglas Lovelace and Dr. Retro Jordans,Steven Metz of the Strategic Studies Institute for encouraging me to undertake this study and supporting my request to be given the research rime to do so. I would also like to thank Major General Robert M. Williams, the Commandant of the U.S. Army War College, and the U.S. Army War College Title 10 Board under the leadership of Dean Bill Johnson for supporting my request to move forward on this project. I must also express my appreciation to my editor at Pracger, Steve Catalano, for friendly and helpful advice on this project. "I hroughout this process, feedback on my ideas was always vital to whatever success I may have been able to achieve in producing this manuscript.

I am correspondingly especially grateful to Mary J. Pelusi, Professor David S. Sorenson of the U.S. Air War College, Dr. Norman Cigar, and Sarah E. Womer, for useful and insightful comments on earlier versions of the chapters of this book. I owe Mary a particular debt for a number of useful suggestions and ideas throughout the life of this project. I also need to mention that during numerous trips to Jordan throughout my career, Cheap Jordan Shoes,I have been created with great kindness and openness by Jordanian friends and hosts and more recently by a number of members of the U.S. Army and Defense attache corps. I have further been fortunate enough to interact with a number of senior Jordanian and other Arab studenrs ar rhe U.S. Army War College who were always willing to share their special insight with me.

I will always consider myself lucky that Jordanians are interested in political topics and always willing to speak to me about them. Despite the significance of this help, all mistakes in this work of fact, omission, interpretation, and speculation are of course entirely my own. jordan releases,I should further thank the U.S. Army War College for its policies of academic freedom and note that the views expressed in this hook are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Paul Sullivan said...

Fechangku Chen— I want to thank you for taking the time to write your book and thank everyone. We are all grateful for your dedication.

Now, I would like to take time to quote NC Freeman who said who made that memorable ststement, "Ahem, getting back to Rockwell..."

Paul Sullivan said...

David— In reference to your comments to Tom, I'm sure you are aware of the unwritten Post policy regarding African-Americans. As Rockwell stated in a 1971 interview, “George Horace Lorimer, who was a very liberal man, told me never to show colored people except as servants.” This may have been thought of as "not rocking the boat." However, today we have to judge this with terms that are much more harsh.

Rockwell made up for for a lot of this in his later career.