Norman Rockwell’s Exceptional Drawings, Revealed for the First Time

Henry (Bill) W. Scovill II (1913– 1996), Norman Rockwell with “The Art Critic” studies in his Main Street, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, studio, 1955, photograph, 8 × 10 inches, Norman Rockwell Museum collection. All images courtesy of Abbeville Press.

Norman Rockwell produced nearly 3,000 images for publication over his six-decade-long career, but he made many more drawings and sketches that have never been seen. For the artist and illustrator known for depicting charming views of daily American life, putting pencil or charcoal to paper was more than just a quick, problem solving process. “Drawing is a complete expression of my idea in line and tone,” he wrote in 1948, adding that “sometimes I feel that making this sketch is the most creative part of making a picture.”

Norman Rockwell: Drawings, 1911–1976 (Abbeville Press, 2022) by Stephanie Haboush Plunkett and Jesse M. Kowalski is the first book dedicated to Rockwell’s prolific but largely private drawing practice. The extensively illustrated book sheds light on the artist’s personal and professional drawings, including his preparatory sketches for advertisements, books, and magazine covers, as well as his illustrated letters, travel sketchbooks, cartoons, and caricatures. Rockwell has long been celebrated for his technical expertise, light humor, and meticulous attention to detail, traits that come through perhaps most strongly in his drawings. An accompanying exhibition, Norman Rockwell Drawings, 19141976, is on view at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts through January 7, 2023.

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Born in New York City in 1894, Rockwell grew up watching his father and maternal grandfather draw and paint in their free time. At age 16, he left high school to study art, first at New York’s National Academy School, and later at the Art Students League, where he excelled in figure drawing. At only 19 years old, he was appointed Art Director at Boys Life magazine, and in 1916, he began his 47-year tenure at the Saturday Evening Post, where he produced more than 300 magazine covers that reached — and delighted — millions of Americans.

Despite ongoing project deadlines, Rockwell remained a methodical craftsman. Each finished piece could take as many as 15 steps and countless sketches to complete, and his preparatory drawings are often so impressively executed that they could easily be finished works, though they were never shown publicly. The book explains that Rockwell’s fastidiousness owes itself at least in part to his love of the Old Master, and he referenced and sometimes imitated Raphael, Leonardo, Dürer, Vermeer, and others in his work. For example, Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter” (1943) takes the same pose as Michelangelo’s “Prophet Isaiah” (c. 1511) from the Sistine Chapel, and in “The Art Critic” (1955), his son poses as a young gallery-goer admiring a Rubens-esque portrait, modeled by the artist’s wife.

Norman Rockwell, “The Art Critic” (1955), oil on canvas, 39½ × 36¼ inches, cover illustration for the Saturday Evening Post, April 16, 1955, NRM.1998.04 (museum purchase)

Rockwell used live models and real props to create his work during the first decades of his career. Later he incorporated photography, though this didn’t necessarily make his process any less elaborate. Ever the perfectionist, Rockwell sometimes took more than 100 shots of the individual models and elements he planned to draw at different angles and positions. But the rapid technology allowed Rockwell to use more animated poses and expressions, and to incorporate people, places, and things from outside of his studio. Many of these materials were unfortunately lost in a 1943 studio fire, but the book presents several fascinating preparatory photos along with Rockwell’s sketches that illuminate his process.

Norman Rockwell, “The Problem We All Live With” (1963), oil on canvas, 36 x 58 inches, illustration for Look, January 14, 1964, NRM.1975.01 (museum purchase)

One of Rockwell’s most famous pieces is “The Problem We All Live With” (1963), his tribute to the bravery of Ruby Bridges. It was the artist’s first image for Look magazine, a publication that Rockwell began working for after being frustrated by the Post’s policy against depicting people of color, except in subservient roles. Rockwell was a life member of the NAACP. At Look, “his hands were no longer tied, and he felt free to create artwork that underscored his personal beliefs and called attention to the civil rights issues of the day,” Louis Henry Mitchell writes in his foreword.

The image was so timely and powerful that one Look reader wrote, “The truth is pretty hard to take until we get it from a Norman Rockwell.” Although Rockwell has sometimes been criticized for his whimsical, even idealized portrayals of American life, this book reveals him to be a tireless worker whose drawings carried much more skill, substance, and conviction than previously recognized.

Louis Lamone, Norman Rockwell painting “The Problem We All Live With” (1963), photograph (from negative), 4 x 5 inches, ST.1976.3849
Norman Rockwell, study for “The Problem We All Live With” (1963), Wolff pencil and charcoal on paper, Norman Rockwell Museum Collection, from Lynda Gunn, Norman Rockwell model for “The Problem We All Live With,” NRM.2016.03.1a
Norman Rockwell, “Pont Neuf, Paris” (April 8, 1932), pencil on paper, 15 × 11 inches, European travel sketchbook page, NRACT.1976.113
Norman Rockwell, “Chateau Fontainebleau, Paris,” (April 8, 1932), pencil on paper, 15 × 11 inches, European travel sketchbook page, NRACT.1976.113
Norman Rockwell, portrait study for “Art Critic” (1955), pencil and charcoal on paper, 11½ × 8¼ inches, cover study for the Saturday Evening Post, April 16, 1955, NRM.1994.02
Norman Rockwell, Study for “The Art Critic” (1955), pencil and charcoal on paper, 38 × 36 inches, cover study for the Saturday Evening Post, April 16, 1955, NRACT.1973.003e
Norman Rockwell, “Henry Ford, the Boy Who Put the World on Wheels (The Inventor)” (c. 1952), charcoal and graphite on paper, 36¼ × 35¾ inches, study calendar illustration for Ford Motor Company’s 50th anniversary, NRACT.1973.121
Norman Rockwell, “Tom, Tom, We’re Lost! We’re Lost! (Tom and Becky in the Cave)” (1936), pencil and charcoal on paper, 24 × 18 inches, study for Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (New York: The Heritage Press, 1936), private collection


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