“I’m an illustrator,” Norman Rockwell insists, “not an artist.” But for the myriad fans who grew old relishing the 317 covers he produced for the Saturday Evening Post from 1916 onward, the distinction is unimportant. Fine art or sentimental caricature, Rockwell’s drawings of homespun America sum up for them decades of small-town life—the ole swimming hole, the high school kid’s first flivver, Thanksgiving dinner, Boy Scouts doing good deeds.
As he turned 82 this month, Rockwell was both flustered and pleased to find his popularity undimmed. He is the main year-round attraction of tiny Stockbridge, Mass. (pop. 2,000), where he lives with his third wife of 15 years, Molly, 80. Rockwell still turns up in his studio at 8:45 every morning, seven days a week with time out only for lunch and what he calls “my old man’s nap.”
Rockwell’s presence is felt everywhere in Stockbridge. His paintings and prints line the halls of the town’s leading hotel, the Red Lion Inn (1773). His prints, books and postcards are sold the length of Main Street, and the Rockwell museum attracted more than 45,000 visitors last year. Few tourists, however, catch a glimpse of the reclusive painter. Until he injured himself when he fell off his bike two years ago, they might have seen him cycling down Main Street puffing his trademark pipe. Now the local citizens help protect his privacy. “The town is very cooperative,” says Molly. “Tourists ask, ‘Where’s Mr. Rockwell?’ and the local people say, ‘I don’t know, he’s around here somewhere.’ They always have some way of putting them off.”
Persistent Rockwell-seekers who do locate his white house and converted red barn-studio find a sign on the door warning them away. Even so, some get through. “One time I didn’t lock the back door,” says Rockwell, “and I came into the studio and there were about 20 people. I had a hell of a time getting them out—politely.”
Rockwell by now has become an industry which employs whole families. He has always used “real people” in town as models, and a score of friends have achieved a certain immortality on his magazine covers. The Gunns, a black family who have lived in the area more than 200 years, have appeared, generation after generation, in his paintings.
“One of my favorite paintings was one I did during the civil rights struggles,” says Rockwell, “of the little Negro girl on her way to school being guarded by four U.S. marshals. Well, I went to Russia for the State Department and they sent the original on. The Russians had the idea the guards were arresting the girl.” The little girl was a Gunn, now an adult.
A good case can be made for calling Rockwell America’s best-known artist. Each of his Saturday Evening Post covers was seen by some four million people. Six years ago publisher Harry Abrams brought out a nine-pound behemoth, Norman Rockwell: Artist and Illustrator, that is probably the best-selling $75 book ever published. A new one, Norman Rockwell’s America ($35), is doing equally well. Thomas S. Buechner, former director of the Brooklyn Museum, says, “Rockwell has painted average America with such benevolent affection for so many years that a truly remarkable history of our century has been compiled…he describes the American Dream.” Rockwell himself makes no apology for what he calls his “human interest stuff,” nor for his realistic technique. He feels his roots are in American illustration. “Howard Pyle was the greatest American illustrator,” he says. “Picasso I never was deeply sympathetic with, because I do almost photographic things and Picasso was a leader of the modernists.”
Over the years Rockwell has painted Presidents and schoolboys and remembers them all, but sometimes now a bit slowly. “Billy Payne,” he says, speaking of his first Post cover in 1916 showing two boys in baseball caps jeering a well-dressed boy pushing a baby carriage, “he posed for all three of them in New Rochelle, N.Y.” And Presidents? “I had an awful time doing Nixon,” he recalls. “He’s a very hard man to paint—he just isn’t interesting. But I had a wonderful time with Eisenhower; I think he was my favorite.” (Rockwell’s biggest White House booster was probably Lyndon Johnson. When presented with an officially commissioned portrait by artist Peter Hurd, the President angrily called it “the ugliest thing I ever saw.” Then, waving a copy of Rockwell’s LBJ painting in Hurd’s face, Johnson shouted, “I’ll show you what I like.”)
Rockwell’s three sons—an artist, a writer and a sculptor—and his seven grandchildren live all over the world. Since the accident, he uses a cane and sometimes a wheelchair, but he and Molly still travel extensively in the U.S. and abroad. He looks forward to acting as grand marshal at Stockbridge’s Memorial Day-Bicentennial celebration this year.
“I’ve been at it a long, long time,” Rockwell says of his art. “I’m flattered and pleased that at 82 I have to turn down commissions for portraits all the time.”