James A. Bailey

Norman Perceval Rockwell was a successful 20th-century American painter and illustrator. He was extraordinarily popular, and enjoyed great commercial success. He grew up in Mamaroneck and later lived in New Rochelle, where he spent the first 25 years of his career.

Rockwell's studio in Stockbridge, MA

Norman Rockwell's final studio at his home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Rockwell's work depicts regular people in common settings, and his pictures (the term he used to describe his work) tell human stories that evoke the emotions of those who see them. Rockwell captured a spirit of America that resonated with people throughout the country. Whether it was a scene of people waiting at a doctor's office or children with their pets at a backyard dog show, those who see his work know the pictures are a window into the soul of a man who understood human nature.

Over the span of his career, Rockwell did 322 covers for one of America's most popular weekly magazines, The Saturday Evening Post. Another major client was the Boy Scouts of America, for whom Rockwell illustrated 49 calendars as well as other work. In addition, he provided paintings and illustrations for other periodicals (Boys' Life and Look among them) and also found time to illustrate children's books and provide work for advertisers.

The Early Years

Norman Rockwell was born in New York City in 1894. In 1903, when he was nine years old, his family moved to a house on Prospect Street in Mamaroneck. Mamaroneck had only one school at that time, where the elementary and high schools were housed in the building the community now uses as Town Center. This was the school Norman attended.

Rockwell's school records do not reflect a particular ability at academics, nor was he recognized for his art in his earliest years. Finally, in the eighth grade, Rockwell had a teacher who recognized his talent, and she permitted him to provide chalk drawings at Christmas time in order to decorate the school. For Rockwell, this was his first "show," and he began to dream of attending art school.

Perhaps motivated by the idea of going off to art school, Rockwell held several paying jobs while living on Prospect Street. He found a job delivering mail to the wealthy residents of Orienta, as mail delivery did not yet extend to the estates in that area. He was also recommended as a perfect assistant for Ethel Barrymore, who lived on Taylor Lane. Barrymore enjoyed painting, so she paid Norman to go along with her, carrying her paint supplies and helping her to set up her easel.

By the middle of his sophomore year, Rockwell had determined what he wanted for his future. He left school in Mamaroneck and commuted daily to New York City to attend art school. He enrolled in classes at the National Academy of Design, but left there for the Art Students League, finding their instruction more in keeping with the work he hoped to do. Though he could have taken a train to New York, he saved money by taking the trolley on Palmer Avenue to 188th Street, where he could catch the subway to Manhattan. His trip took two hours each way, but it was what he could afford at the time.

Life in New Rochelle

Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell in 1921. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Rockwell's parents encountered difficult times, and in 1913 they moved from their home to a boarding house in New Rochelle. That worked nicely for Norman, as New Rochelle was a logical base for him; the City on the Sound had become a haven for illustrators working for the many publications with offices located in New York City.

New Rochelle historian Barbara Davis has documented Rockwell's homes and studios in the area. The first New Rochelle residence where the Rockwells lived was Brown Lodge (39 Prospect Street, New Rochelle). Shortly after that move, Rockwell rented an art studio for himself on the second floor of the Covelly Building at 360 North Avenue. Then, as Rockwell tells it, he "interrupted cartoonist Clyde Forsythe's lunch" often enough that they became friends, and Forsythe suggested they rent the studio on Webster Avenue that had once been used by Frederic Remington.

This was fortuitous for Rockwell, as Forsythe, who worked for The Saturday Evening Post, helped Rockwell get his foot in the door at the magazine. After Forsythe introduced him, Rockwell's work began appearing regularly. His first cover appeared in 1916, with seven more to follow in that first 12-month period alone.

Around that time, Rockwell's family moved to Edgewood Hall, off Webster Avenue, and shortly after that he met and married his first wife, Irene O'Connor, a teacher who was the model for at least one of his covers ("Mother Tucking Children into Bed").

From 1921-26, Rockwell worked in rented space atop the garage owned by George Lischke at 40 Prospect. Lischke's son, Franklin, was a frequent model for Rockwell, eventually becoming his studio assistant and friend. Encouraged by Rockwell, Lischke went on to a successful career as a graphic artist.

Eventually Rockwell bought a cottage on Premium Point, and shortly afterward, resident Irving Hansen approached Norman and Irene about a house "trade." Hansen would move into the Rockwells' home and the Rockwells would take Hansen's beautiful home at 24 Lord Kitchener Road. (Hansen's motivation was explained as wanting his mother, who lived on Lord Kitchener Road, to have good neighbors.)

After 14 years of marriage, Irene and Norman agreed that the marriage was not working out for either of them. They divorced in 1930, having had no children. Shortly after, Rockwell married schoolteacher Mary Barstow, and while still living on Lord Kitchener Road, Norman and Mary had three children. The family belonged to Saint John's Wilmot Church, an Episcopal church in the area.

Rockwell's Methodology

A recent museum exhibit, put together by the curators at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, sheds more light on Rockwell's methodology, and in the process, the exhibit shows how Rockwell could be so accurate in his depictions.

Operating as if he were staging a show, Rockwell thought through the setting, the costumes, and of course, the look of the people. As any resident of New Rochelle who was a contemporary of Rockwell could tell you, he used "regular people" to model for his paintings. In 1994 Barbara Davis wrote a piece for the Gannett newspapers reminiscing about some of Rockwell's models. The widow of Franklin Lischke told Davis that Lischke was just a young boy, with what Rockwell described as "a great face who can make his eyebrows go up!" In 1982 the New Rochelle Council on the Arts held a week-long Rockwell festival, inviting back to the city as many former models as they could find. (Stockbridge, Rockwell's last home town, also had reunions for his models on a regular basis.)

Once models were chosen, Rockwell spent a great deal of time working with them to elicit the look that he wanted. Sometimes he would act out what he wanted them to show; other times he would experiment until the models captured what Rockwell wanted in the picture. Rockwell then used a photographer to snap the scene from several angles. This photo documentation provided Rockwell with the blueprint he needed to go back to his studio and produce his work.

Rockwell is described as pleasant and fun when working with his models. His studio time was much more tortured; his perfectionist spirit took over, and he wrestled with getting the illustration just right.

Today a gift from Rockwell to the community hangs in the children's section of the New Rochelle Public Library. It is called "The Land of Enchantment," and it was Rockwell's first double-spread illustration for The Saturday Evening Post. In 1939 Rockwell moved his family to Arlington, Vermont, but he loved his studio so much that he had it re-created "nail for nail" when he moved.

The Mamaroneck Story

Fishes Like Neckties

Norman Rockwell donated Fishes Like Neckties to Mamaroneck High School in 1965. Courtesy the Norman Rockwell Family Agency, Inc. from the digital collection of the Norman Rockwell Museum.

Many years later, when the Mamaroneck High School class of 1965 was nearing its commencement, someone in the class suggested that since Rockwell had never graduated that he should be given an honorary diploma. Rockwell's written response to the principal, Joseph McLain, notes pleasure at the thought, and offers the school one of his paintings in return for the degree. Rockwell wrote: "I guess I am what would now be called a 'drop-out' but I still have great affection for Mamaroneck High School, and as my exhibition comes home I will send you an original as I had promised."

Two months later, Rockwell received the diploma and wrote to McLain that he was proudly displaying it. He then asks if the painting he is about to send would be acceptable; he worried that it might not be right for high school:

It is a horizontal panel 56" by 32" and it shows famous fishermen. The first one is Izaak Walton, the second is Rip Van Winkle, the third one is a modern fisherman and the fourth one a Huckleberry Finn type. It…might encourage truancy.…Please be frank and tell me if the subject matter is all right.

The school happily accepted and hung the painting, but that was not the end of the story.

In 1975 the painting was stolen, and newspapers across the nation wrote about the theft. For two years there was scant information about the painting's whereabouts. Finally the police had a lead, and they convinced the school to put up some money to elicit information from an informant. Shortly thereafter, the informant brought a plastic bag to the police department; the painting had been cut up into seven pieces. Six of the pieces were in the plastic bag but the signature piece was missing.

Despite the shock of the destruction of the painting, the community pulled together to remedy the situation. The Mamaroneck Artists Guild spearheaded a fundraising drive and, with help from the school's PTSA, they raised enough money for the painting to be restored. A friend of Rockwell's connected them with the Julius Lowy Frame and Restoring Company and Shar-Sisto, Inc. to save the painting. Though the signature piece was never found, the painting was expertly restored, and it still hangs, well-protected, in the school library.

Other Work and Later Life

24 Lord Kitchener Road

Norman Rockwell's house at 24 Lord Kitchener Road, New Rochelle. Photo courtesy New Rochelle Public Library Local HIstory Collection.

In 1943 Rockwell painted the Four Freedoms series. It was inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt's speech outlining the four principles of universal rights. The series was published in 1943 by The Saturday Evening Post, and later, the U.S. Department of the Treasury exhibited the originals in 16 cities to promote the sale of war bonds. These are iconic images that most people would recognize today.

Rockwell was devastated by the unexpected death of his second wife in 1959. He married another teacher Molly Punderson in 1961, and she is credited with encouraging him to use his art for social commentary. His last painting for The Saturday Evening Post was published in 1963. During the next 10 years he worked primarily for Look magazine, where he was able to express more of his political sentiment. It was for Look that he painted Ruby Bridges, an African American girl flanked by U.S. Marshals who are escorting her into a formerly all-white school. The work is entitled "The Problem We All Live With."

Norman Rockwell died in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in 1978 after a long illness.