I’ve learned much about Norman Rockwell while researching my forthcoming book, NORMAN ROCKWELL’S MODELS, In and Out of the Studio, which will be published by Rowman and Littlefield on February 15, 2023. I’m continually impressed by the humility America’s favorite illustrator displayed during his career and how critical it was.
Yesterday I spent an enjoyable few hours in Stockbridge, Massachusetts on the main drag not far from the Norman Rockwell Museum, casually telling people about my book. I first chatted with an older man wearing a US Marine cap. He was sitting on a concrete wall on Main Street, close to the cafe with the big second story window that was once in front of Norman’s studio. He explained that his wife had worked in the Rockwell home. He made it a point to let me know that Norman was a humble man. He pointed at flowers on lawns next to the sidewalk, and described how the artist would dress in old clothes and pick them so people would think of him as a regular “Joe.”
Several years ago, I heard a Stockbridge resident call him “the most humble famous man.”
We have all heard of countless cases of people who become famous in the entertainment world (or in any line of work for that matter), whose egos blow up like hot air balloons that carry them away to a galaxy of thrilling lifestyle excesses. When the balloon pops, they crash to earth. Suffering begins. It’s a sad phenomena.
It’s refreshing to learn about someone who resisted the temptation. Rockwell didn’t start out so down-to-earth. At age 22 in 1916, he made a whopping $75 for his first painting, a Saturday Evening Post cover. That’s the equivalent of $1,800 today. Initially he too engaged in the excesses of night life, which was one of the factors that caused his first marriage to end. Before long he felt a gnawing emptiness and wanted to experience something deeper. Eventually, he remarried, had three children and moved to West Arlington, Vermont to live in rural American farming country with regular working people and a group of artists. An over 60-year string of successes in American publications followed.
Norman managed to stay clear of the hot-air balloon phenomena and enjoyed being just plain Norman. He got to know “everyone in town” at club meetings like Rotary and The Grange, art events, and dances on the West Arlington Village Green just across the dirt road from his front door. His humor added to his quality of life. He enjoyed chuckling about how mindless he had been to bring a horse to model into his studio. The horse had to be led out quickly after it began doing its business. During WWII, locals assigned Norman the task of sounding an alarm by banging a piece of railroad track they hung from a post. Norman would laugh when he told people he was removed from the job because he didn’t have the umph to bang it hard enough with a sledgehammer.
Of course he loved the satisfaction of completing paintings that told stories, enjoyed the praise he received as America’s most popular illustrator, and engaged in professional promotion of his work. However, in order to stay down to earth and to fit in with the regular folk, he dressed in khakis and flannel shirts and walked around the village in a more than well-worn winter coat.
Truth be known, his self-survival sense stemmed from the fact that excessive publicity made him feel uneasy. In 1943, when the War Department sent his iconic Four Freedoms on a 16-city tour to promote WWII bonds, he was tired and nervous after the first exhibition and went home. Before he went to a dinner hosted by President Eisenhower at the White House, he was so anxious that his country doctor in Arlington gave him something that could settle his nerves. (He dropped the pill down the sink before he could swallow it.)
Norman made it a point to deflect excessive praise. When a person would tell him his paintings were great, he would often respond by saying they weren’t so hot. In his book, HOW I MAKE A PICTURE, he went so far as to say, “Believe me, I know better than anyone else that none of my pictures are even near-masterpieces, and I know some of them distinctly smell!”
With this attitude of humility, Norman was able to resist hot-air ballooning. He was relatively early to bed (except when on deadline), early to rise and created America’s most beloved illustrations for 60 years. It also made him wealthy and wise–but not altogether free of life’s difficulties.