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October 01, 2023 4 min read

Norman Rockwell and The American Christmas

Has anyone ever wished you a "Norman Rockwell" Christmas? Just what are they talking about? Norman Rockwell painted portraits of 20th century family life in funny but usually optimistic ways. We hope you enjoy a little history of the man who loved America and brought holidays like Christmas a bit more joy.

The term “Rockwellian” has been used to denote a world replete with harmony in familial relationships, patriotism, optimism, idealism, good-natured fun, and a general feeling that all is well. Adapting everyday situations by accenting and augmenting them to increase their visual and emotional punch, Norman Rockwell didn’t create a fantasy existence, but instead enhanced our own. Critics who have viewed his illustration work with contempt seem unaware that in Rockwell’s world children still disobeyed rules, adolescent girls grappled with social pressures, boys struggled with their evolution into manhood, and, in his most powerful paintings, society confronted issues of race.

Norman Rockwell possessed a distinct ability to create works of art that evoke a strong emotional response. Many of the emotions drawn from the viewer are memories of formative events from their own lives, nostalgia toward a time long gone, or a feeling of Americans collectively united through war-time patriotism. Whether rich or poor, young or old, educated or not, museum visitors often view Rockwell’s paintings with an emotional response or recollection. In certain works, the viewer’s reaction is minimal, noting only the composition or appeal of the characters and the situation of the subjects. In others, parents identify strongly with a mother supervising her children as they stir cake batter, fathers sympathizes with the dad wistfully watching as his daughter transitions to adulthood, children acknowledge scenes of youthful mischief, while others reminisce about their first childhood crush.

How he ended up on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post

Upon the urging of fellow illustrator and studio partner, Clyde Forsythe, Norman Rockwell walked into the Philadelphia headquarters of The Saturday Evening Post in early 1916 with two paintings he hoped to have published on the cover of the most widely read publication in the United States. Editor George Horace Lorimer was so impressed that he immediately agreed to purchase the works for future publication.

Rockwell noted, “In those days the cover of the Postwas the greatest show window in America for an illustrator. If you did a cover for the Postyou had arrived. . . . Two million subscribers and then their wives, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, friends. Wow! All looking at my cover.” From his first cover in 1916 to his final illustration in 1963, the Post published 321 covers of original Rockwell paintings.

The process of creating a masterpiece

After choosing the best photographs to tell his story, Norman Rockwell began the process of translating these images into his finished painting. First, a detailed charcoal drawing was required with which he developed and refined his narrative and worked out compositional details. Rockwell began by placing his initial sketch in the Balopticon, which projected onto roughened architect’s paper on a vertical easel. Positioning it closer or farther away to achieve the desired size, he drew lightly to outline his design.

Beginning with the most important subjects, Rockwell placed his photographs one by one in the Balopticon. Maneuvering each element into position until it fit the outlined sketch, he lightly traced the projected photographs, erasing the first sketched figures as he worked. Rockwell sometimes cut out and used only the specific details that interested him and discarded the remainder of the photographic image as he fine-tuned his composition. If the result didn’t please him Rockwell rubbed out or replaced the detail, rubber cementing in a new paper section. With the complete composition roughed in, he started again at the beginning, tracing each photographic element in greater detail and making notations on lighting and tonality.

To make the leap to canvas Rockwell transferred the outlines of his charcoal drawing to primed canvas using transfer paper. Alternately, Rockwell had his charcoal drawing photographed, projected onto canvas, and traced. In a separate step, Rockwell produced a new version – in color and to the size of the intended reproduction – with which he planned the palette of the final painting. Sometimes created early in his creative process, Rockwell’s color studies often possess a loose, painterly vitality quite unlike the finished, more detailed illustration.

After transferring his charcoal study to canvas and sealing it with thinned shellac, Norman Rockwell began the demanding process of laying down paint. Surrounded by all of the reference materials he had collected for the work at hand, his photographs played a final role as he tacked snippets cut from them to his easel as he worked.

Rockwell endured long, often stressful days at his easel as he completed his creative process. Striving to get everything exactly right, he was known to repeatedly paint over entire sections of a composition, or scrape the paint down to the canvas and start over. Sometimes, even finished works could be discarded. He routinely asked anyone who came into his studio to critique a work in progress as a way to test his artistic choices and gauge the clarity of his narrative.

Source: Norman Rockwell Museum and nrm.org