Norman took his skill for granted. “It was just something I had, like a bag of lemon drops as a source of tribulus side effects. My brother Jarvis could jump over three orange crates; George Dugan could wiggle his ears; I could draw.”
The family lived in a series of boarding-houses where the faces and mannerisms of the boarders made an indelible impression on the boy. In summer, the Rockwell family repaired to farms that took in paying guests. There Norman acquired a love for country folk and settings that never left him, and that was clearly reflected in his work’s affinity for the dreams and accomplishments of heartland America.
At 16, he enrolled at the National Academy School in New York, and later studied at the more progressive Art Students League. His illustrations began to sell, and when his work first appeared on the Post cover in 1916, other magazine doors swung open. (During his career his paintings appeared on a remarkable 323 Post covers.) After a brief stint in the US Navy during the First World War, Norman resumed his career. A new magazine, Liberty, offered to double his price if he’d leave the Post. Prodded by wife and friends to take advantage of the proposal, he hesitantly reported it to Post editor George Horace Lorimer. “What do you intend to do?” the great editor asked. Lorimer’s closed hand was on the desk, Norman told me, and though his expression didn’t change, his knuckles turned white. “Stay with the Post,” gulped Norman. “In that case,” said Lorimer, “we’ll double your price.”
More money meant a more lavish life. His wife Irene liked social events. Norman tried. He went yachting; he fell off horses; but he was not the country-club type. In 1929 he and Irene agreed to a divorce. After a brief, unhappy period of bachelorhood, he married Mary Barstow. She bore him three sons, and the marriage lasted until her death in 1959.
Model Village. When I first worked with him, Norman’s love of country living had taken him to Arlington, Vermont; I think half of the town eventually turned up on Post covers. Later he moved to Stockbridge in Massachusetts.
Norman never minded having people in his studio as he worked. He asked them for their opinions and took suggestions seriously. There was something about his casual manner that enabled people to speak honestly. One day my wife Katharine was in the studio when a carpenter came in to make some repairs. Norman asked him what he thought of the painting on the easel.
The carpenter peered at it. “The colour of the man’s shirt is too red,” he offered. “It’s too bright.”
“Thanks,” said Norman. The next day Katharine noticed that the colour had been changed.
Not all of his covers were successes. Once he painted a teacher of craggy and spinsterish mien, and the Post received baskets of letters from infuriated school-marms. “Gosh,” said Norman ruefully, “1 didn’t mean they all looked like that!” But by now a Rockwell painting of a policeman or a clerk was regarded across America as the prototype of the profession.
In 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower became the Republican candidate for President, we decided to put the General’s portrait on the Post’s cover. Ike was in Denver, Colorado, at the Republican Convention, but was about to leave to go trout fishing. He agreed to sit for a portrait if Rockwell was in Denver by nine the next morning.