by Joe Curreri
Norman Rockwell produced 4,000 works during his lifetime, yet his popularity is based on the covers he produced for The Saturday Evening Post, published by the Curtis Publishing Company in Philadelphia. Rockwell’s relationship with the Post and Curtis spanned six decades of this century, from 1916 to 1963.
All 321 of Rockwell’s covers from the Post are featured in the Atwater Kent Museum, where Philadelphia history lives. The museum’s exhibit, right across the street from Independence Hall, is the first to explore thematically Rockwell’s work and artistic life, and will be on view through December, 2002. His connection to the city is emphasized by a small exhibit-room made to resemble the office of the editor whom the artist visited with sketches of proposals for covers.
Known as the “boy illustrator” in his early years, Rockwell became the first art editor of Boy’s Life magazine at 19. He was also an avid illustrator of children’s books and magazines. Yet, no amount of success could equal his secret ambition of doing a cover for the Saturday Evening Post, in those days it was considered America’s greatest show window for an illustrator. It traces its origins to Benjamin Franklin, who produced the first issue, then called the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1728. The Gazette became the Post in 1821. In 1897, Cyrus Curtis bought the Post and with editor George Horace Lorimer created the prototype for the national mass circulation magazine.
“I used to sit in the studio with a copy of the Post laid across my knees,” Rockwell once wrote. “Must be two million people look at at cover, I’d say to myself. All looking at that cover. And then I’d conjure up a picture of myself as a famous illustrator, surrounded admiring females, and being wined and dined by the editor of the Post, Mr. George Horace Lorimer.”
What worried Rockwell most was that Mr. Lorimer wouldn’t like his work, and that the great editor’s influence would put the damper on his work with the kids’ magazines and the pulps. Thus, he feared, he would end up “doing wrappers for penny candies.”
In March, 1916, after a friend finally convinced him that he was as good as anyone, a reluctant 22-year-old took two oil paintings to Philadelphia to show to the Post editor. “All the way up the steps of the Curtis Publishing Co. building,” he later recalled, “All I could think of was what Adelaide Klenke (friend of the family) once told me: I had the eyes of an angel and the neck of a chicken.” He almost turned around and left.
Had he done so, those two paintings would not have been bought for the handsome sum of $75 each. Those two million Post readers would have had to look at candy wrappers to see a Norman Rockwell illustration.
When his dream came true, Rockwell exclaimed, “A cover on the Post! Two covers on the Post. $75 for one painting. An audience of one million! I had arrived.”
He greatly underestimated just how far he had arrived. In over six decades, he became the most famous artist in America. Millions of people have been moved by his pictures, and his work has been reproduced more often than Michelangelo’s, Picasso’s and Rembrandt’s put together. His obituary in Time magazine, 1978, read: “Rockwell shared with Walt Disney the extraordinary distinction of being one of two artists familiar to nearly everyone in the U.S., rich or poor, black or white, museum goer or not, illiterate or Ph.D.”
Norman Rockwell was born in Manhattan in 1894, and although he never lived in Philadelphia, his connection to the city through Curtis Publishing Company is obvious. From 1976 through 1997, The Curtis Center Museum of Norman Rockwell Art, was a popular attraction at the building on Independence Mall that originally housed the publishing company. When that museum closed it doors, it generously donated most of its collection to the Atwater Kent, because of Rockwell’s close ties to the city.
Norman Rockwell saw America through rose-colored glasses and he painted it that way. He explored an image that included what Rockwell called “the commonplaces of America,” which he said were “the richest subjects in art: Boys batting flies on vacant lots, little girls playing jacks on the front step; old men plodding home at twilight, umbrellas in hand…”
Among the framed Post covers in the Atwater Kent Museum is Rockwell’s most popular, Saying Grace It depicts a woman and a child saying grace in a busy restaurant as other diners observe them with curiosity. Curator Jeffrey Ray said, “It was suggested to Rockwell by someone who saw an Amish family saying grace before eating at a Horn and Hardart restaurant on Chestnut St. in Philadelphia.”
During the Second World War, Rockwell made his real visceral connection with his public and Americans at large. The Four Freedoms, displayed in the exhibition, helped raise 16 million dollars in War Bonds when Rockwell took the original oil paintings on tour. “Rockwell’s wartime imagery,” said graphic artist Milton Glaser, dealt with nostalgia and yearning…or with the myths that gave people the strength needed to win the war.” He gave us four men around a drugstore counter in “Anytown, USA” listening for the news of D-Day, while other popular periodicals were publishing photographs of Omaha Beach.
A thematic section features home front warriors such as Rosie the Riveter and the Armchair General, a cigar-smoking guy with a map on his lap listening intently to war news on the radio.
“The Stoltz brothers grew up in Northeast Philadelphia when Rockwell was at the height of his popularity,” explained Beryl Rosenstock, Marketing Director. “They became fascinated by Rockwell’s art and had collected a full series of Post covers. Anticipating an influx of tourists for the Nation’s Bicentennial celebration, they displayed them in the Curtis Building. For the next 21 years they were a popular attraction, and when they closed we jumped at the offer to display them here. Our visitors have now increased 30 percent.”
Specific, illustrative details were Rockwell’s trademark. The originality and the care that went into each of his paintings is evident. When you look at his Post covers it is like taking a time machine back over 80 years. You are able to experience a part of America’s heritage. Each painting shows an endearing situation and tells a story we all recognize; a Runaway kid; a boy bends over for a doctor’s Shot; a girl with a Black Eye and a satisfied smile sitting outside the principal’s office.
A small room in the exhibit evokes a Rockwell Studio. Look closely at the artist’s easel and you can follow how one sketch of a scene succeeds other sketches that eventually turn into a finished Post cover. Nearby are various objects that Rockwell used as props for his paintings, such as a painter’s scaffold and a barber chair.
Another area in the exhibit is where visitors can sit on a sofa and chairs around a coffee table and look at old Saturday Evening Post magazines.
Although Rockwell is best known for his depictions of Americana, he was an accomplished commercial artist as well. Working for more than 150 companies, he produced some 800 advertisements, calendars, illustrations, logos and mastheads. Ironically, among his last published ads were a series for Rock of Ages Corporation, a manufacturer of headstones. Soon after, Rockwell died on November 8, 1978.
Few magazines of today regularly use illustrations. Photography replaced the art. Given these circumstances, it is doubtful that we will see again an illustrator of Norman Rockwell’s talent and popularity.
Joe Curreri is a freelance writer living inPhiladelphia.