For the first half of the 20th century, the United States was a place of great social and economic change. Rapid industrialization, two World Wars, the burgeoning Civil Rights movement and the Great Depression all contributed to a sense of a nation in flux. The iconic paintings and magazine illustrations of Norman Rockwell portray a different, less disconcerting America. Evocative of simpler, more innocent times – of Thanksgiving dinners and innocent soda-fountain encounters – even when depicting the weary GI’s battlefield cigarette they are imbued with what one critic called “a shovelful of stardust”. One of America’s most beloved artists, Rockwell produced some of the USA’s most iconic 20th-century artworks and defined the way we perceive a certain period in American culture.
Rockwell was born in New York City and studied at the Chase School of Art, the National Academy of Design and the Arts Students League in New York. His career began early; in his teens he worked on Boys’ Life, the official publication of the Boy Scouts of America, and illustrated other children’s publications. By 1916 he had his first cover illustration for the weekly, Saturday Evening Post, and, though his work would be printed by the likes of Literary Digest, Life and Look, it was with the Post that his name became synonymous.
In the 1940s as Europe fell to the Nazis, Rockwell produced his masterpiece sequence, Four Freedoms, a fierce defence of liberty in a world increasingly darkened by tyranny. Rockwell’s aesthetic, with its air of vulnerability and innocence, was a perfect vessel for social commentary and humanitarian agitprop, and had a huge impact on the political opinion of the country.
The majority of his work in the post-war years — such as First Trip to the Beauty Shop (1972) — would be filled with his hallmark humour and pathos, or else record notable civic moments, such as his portrait of astronauts, Grissom and Young (1965). Yet he would continue to paint important socially-motivated pieces, culminating in his Civil Rights masterpiece, The Problem We All Live With (1963).
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