Art History Favorite Artists Painting 20th Century

Regional Modernism through the eyes of Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell is one of the most recognizable American regionalists, his American branded paintings including his series of four oil paintings from 1943 and their significance in broadening regionalism culture and American art.  Following the disastrous Great Depression, America felt a wave of severe economic difficulty, social change, and political change. American artists, however, maintained a dedication to projecting their personal views of life in America. In 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered one of the most memorable speeches about the four human freedoms.  Norman Rockwell visually interpreted this speech in four paintings, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear, each approximately 45.75 inches × 35.5 inches are now in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.  Few paintings connect with the mass American people, but Rockwell was able to capture the spirit, ruralness, and America’s most valued belief, freedom.

Artist Norman Rockwell (1894 – 1978) is sometimes referred to as America’s favorite artist. Most Americans have seen at least one, if not more, of the 322 covers he illustrated for the magazine, the Saturday Evening Post. Rockwell’s covers on the Post constructed a portrait of America that is nostalgic and helped to create a vision of regional small-town life that was idyllic. Because of this, most also assume that Rockwell was merely a nice guy from his small town USA scenes. Because of his illustrations and paintings, we assume that Norman Rockwell was the outcome of the heartland or at least the farmland, but actually, he was an urban kid from New York City.  Making assumptions about artists based on their work is easy.

Rockwell’s family life was not as endearing as his paintings. Rockwell’s early family life included a mother that was hostile and manipulative. Rockwell’s first wife came about due to his early success as an illustrator who wanted to marry him for his money. But after two decades of unhappiness, she divorced him and committed suicide. In Rockwell’s second marriage they had children, but his second wife was also depressed and killed herself. Rockwell’s third wife was his most successful. The Rockwellian life shown on the canvas proved to be very different than the life he lived.  Rockwell was clinically depressed and undiagnosed until he was married to wife number two. Today, we recognize his childhood as A-D-D, which left untreated develops into a nervous depression in adulthood. 

The art of Norman Rockwell may portray a simple life, but he was a complicated man. Regardless of the personal complications in his life, through his artwork, it is clear that he loved this country and the people in it.  The 1920/30s were tough on his life and for the country.  His art offered an escape to the idealistic America that many Americans sought. In the early part of the twentieth century Rockwell, like other regional artists who had made several trips to Europe, was influenced by the school of Paris and even tried to renew his covers for the Saturday evening post with a more modernist style, but luckily, the editor refused his submissions.  Rockwell received his training as an illustrator, which was a sensible career choice for an artist because he needed to earn a living. The top job for American illustrators of the times was the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, and in 1916, he created the first of 322 covers for the magazine. Today, the Saturday Evening Post is not as popular due to the massive amount of print/online/tv media competition, but its covers of a small-town America are still endearing and show how life has changed.

Rockwell’s patriotism and talent demonstrated how art could change and impact a nation. Rockwell would invent characters who reflected ordinary Americans and place them in situations, and that reflected Rockwell’s idealist America.  Norman Rockwell’s work is similar to a production designer for a film set. His scenes are busy and cluttered with accessories, but he only includes enough information necessary to tell the story he wants you to see. Once the story is presented, mostly by mass media, on the cover of the Post, the viewer can use this information to continue telling the story through their imagination. Comparing Rockwell’s artwork for the Post over the many decades, you can quickly identify the continuity of the look of Rockwell’s small-town America was an idealistic vision he never experienced but willed into existence. These images of America and its people became history, directly through their publication and became one truth in the nation’s collective consciousness. Art critic, Dave Hickey, characterized Rockwell’s work as a “democratic history painting.” The magazine covers from the Saturday Evening Post offer a collective portrait of a young and innocent America going up and becoming strong and finally facing change and diversity.

Some of Rockwell’s most impactful artwork occurred during wartime.  Rockwell often portrayed a romanticized vision of a young, growing country he loved.  Even in the most traumatic era of America, Rockwell would continue to offer an uplifting, positive view of America by creating heroes and a call for Americans made up of a military of ordinary men and women.  This regional call-to-arms helped shape the vision shared by many called the American Dream. 

One everyday American citizen hero created by Rockwell was Willie Gillis. Willie Gillis was a freckle-faced All-American character who served as one of Rockwell’s main cover boys during World War II.  Rockwell gives credit for the name Willie Gillis to his then-wife, Mary, who was inspired by the nursery rhyme Wee Willie Winkie.  Willie would star in eleven covers spanning from joining the military, scenes overseas to finally his college days after the war thanks to the GI bill. 

Although women were rarely depicted in Rockwell’s wartime scenes, the most famous average woman in American history was created by Rockwell in May 1943. Rosie the Riveter (1943) made her debut in households using a pose based on Michelangelo’s Prophet Isaiah from the Sistine ceiling. Clad in overalls, Rosie is the only character in the scene and has a rivet gun casually resting across her lap while she eats her lunch.  Rosie became an icon, not just about strong women, but also about the wartime militarization and participation of ALL American people. 

The last example of regional modernism culture for the building of American ideals that exist today is Rockwell’s interpretation of the four freedoms. The Four Freedoms (19453) was inspired by a speech given to the American people by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in January 1941, in support of England’s struggle against the Nazis. At this time, America was reluctant to enter into another European war, but FDR wanted to tell the Americans what being an American meant and laid out the humanitarian values at stake. Roosevelt said we look forward to a world founded upon four essential freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression everywhere in the world. The second is the freedom of every person to worship God in their way everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want, which translates into a means of economic understanding. The last freedom is freedom from fear, which shows a universal belief that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor anywhere in the world. Despite these highly American thoughts of values and themes by FDR, the concept of the Four Freedoms failed to capture any attention from the media, other politicians,  or even the American public. 

Rockwell, on the other hand, was significantly affected by Roosevelt’s State of the Union speech and thought for months about bringing the freedoms to life.  It would be the Post’s new editor,  Ben Hibbs who would push and encourage Rockwell to complete the project and would publish the Four Freedoms on the cover.  The paintings took nearly seven months to complete but were an immediate success. Published one a month for four months, they helped to re-establish the Post as an important and credible magazine. More importantly, though, the American public would now understand why the fight was important. We fight for those very freedoms most take for granted.  Rockwell’s paintings helped to renew the purchase of war bonds and deepen the patriotic closeness of the people.

Freedom of Speech (1943) shows an ordinary working-class young man, visiting a town hall meeting, saying his piece, and speaking his mind.  He is surrounded by other men and women who are looking at him without judgment but with consideration of what he is saying.  There is a white paper/pamphlet in his pocket that appears to be of some importance to what is being discussed.  Even without knowing the name of the painting, it is easy to relate this work to a cherished American value of the freedom of speech.

Freedom of Worship (1943) is a collection of profile portraits, close-ups of people of all different faces praying and showing devotion to their respective gods. While the Post did not allow for different races to be portrayed on their cover, there is a feeling of diversity through the use of few colors, light, and age of the models.

Freedom from Fear (1943) showed two parents tucking their two children into bed. The father holds the newspaper with headlines of the bombing of London.  The painting shows concerns for the future of the children and the children are most likely symbolic for America.  The painting portrays a belief that a parent will do anything for their children; thus America has no fear in engaging the enemy to win the war.

Freedom from Want (1943), sometimes called Thanksgiving, is still today, the most popular and the most famous. The painting portrays three generations of a family around a table at Thanksgiving. The oldest father is standing at the head of the table as the mother is about to place a large turkey in front of him. The painting is intended to show that despite the difficulties the country was facing, traditional American family values will always remain important. Today, however, while the imagery of the Thanksgiving painting has endured, it has been replicated and reimagined in many pop cultural forms in an attempt to redefine contemporary societal perceptions but continues the iconic representation of American tradition, social customs, and familial interpretations.   

Norman Rockwell’s life is a terrific example of an artist who shifted away from European modernism to embrace subjects of their homeland whether real or imagined. Rockwell and other regionalist painters were able to capture the spirit and character through a figurative narrative, bringing back art-as-storytelling, while being rendered in precise believable detail. American Regionalists painted familiar subjects and situations in ways that would be accessible and accepted by the general public. These American artists, although not organized in defining their style, began to establish a uniquely American style of art.  Norman Rockwell was clearly one of the most popular artists from the the1930s, and into the early 1950s, that sought a national form of realism that would connect with the values of ordinary people throughout America, and he still remains a favorite icon today. 

Rockwell’s Willie Gillis character on cover of the Post magazine.

Rosie the Riveter character on cover of the Post magazine The Four Freedoms. (1943)

By Gary

Gary is a full-time Business Management instructor at Fullerton College. Gary has worked on various art projects for over 30 years. Gary's choice medium is Glass. Blowing, fusing, and mosaics are some of the various method he practices. Gary is a cyclist and will be participating in the Aids Lifecycle (