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Norman Rockwell’s Adventures

I picked up Norman Rockwell’s 1960 memoir My Adventures as an Illustrator at the yearly book sale we have near our house early this year, thinking it might be interesting. Having just finished it, I can say it was quite enjoyable. Rockwell is surprisingly engaging and self-deprecating as a writer. With someone like Rockwell, it’s often difficult to separate the man from the iconic imagery he’s known for. From Rockwell’s perspective, he was merely a working artist who filled a need for magazine editors and clients hungry for that sentimental, apple pie Americana. The only regret that he seems to have is that he entered the field a little later than the true Golden Age of Illustration in the early 1900s, when the men he admired were in full bloom. His own body of work was nothing to sneeze at, of course. When he wrote this book, at the age of about 66, he was still thinking he had some refinements to do with his painting technique. Incredible! And this was a few years before he did some of his more stunning works, such as the one of the little black girl walking to school.

Interestingly, I always hated Rockwell’s stuff as a kid. My mom used to have the Rockwell placemats, coffee mugs, plates, etc. all around the house and it made me want to gag. She also gave me a book with large-scale reproductions of his work, when I was in high school and into much cooler artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein. I read that one, however, and begrudgingly came to admire the guy and his incredible technique. When a Rockwell retrospective came to the local art museum a few years back, we went and enjoyed it thoroughly. It was truly a window on another era.

My Adventures as an Illustrator is a little too rambling and inconsistent to totally recommend, but it does have a few absorbing chapters – and I enjoyed the looser, cuter art he did for the chapter headings. One highlight comes where he recalls his friendship with the great illustrator J. C. Leyendecker, and the sad decline of his career due to changing tastes and the stranglehold that his lover/business partner Charles Beach had on him. Another interesting chapter takes the form of a daily diary chronicling the making of what was then his newest Saturday Evening Post cover (and a personal favorite), The Family Tree. In the preliminary sketch and final art below, one can see the various details he adjusted along the way.

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