Rockwell had been taught in Thomas Fogarty’s illustration class that pictures are “the servant of text.” But here he breaks that rule. Traditionally, illustrations for “The Deserted Village” have emphasized the theme of exodus, portraying men and women driven out of an idyllic, tree-laden English landscape. But Rockwell moved his scene indoors and chose to capture a moment of tenderness between an older man and a young man, even though no such scene is described in the poem.
Put another way, Rockwell was able to do the double duty of fulfilling the requirements of illustration while staying true to his emotional instincts. The thrill of his work is that he was able to use a commercial form to work out his private obsessions.
Rockwell, who was born in New York City in 1894, the son of a textile salesman, attributed much about his life and his work to his underwhelming physique. As a child he felt overshadowed by his older brother, Jarvis, a first-rate student and athlete. Norman, by contrast, was slight and pigeon-toed and squinted at the world through owlish glasses. His grades were barely passing and he struggled with reading and writing—today, he surely would be labeled dyslexic. Growing up in an era when boys were still judged largely by their body type and athletic prowess, he felt, he once wrote, like “a lump, a long skinny nothing, a bean pole without beans.”
It did not help that he grew up at a time when the male body—as much as the mind—had come to be viewed as something to be improved and expanded. President Theodore Roosevelt himself was an advocate of body modification. Much of Rockwell’s childhood (ages 7 to 15) took place during the daunting athleticism of Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency. He was the president who had transformed his sickly, asthmatic body into a muscular one, the naturalist president who hiked for miles and hunted big game. In the T.R. era, the well-developed male body became a kind of physical analogue to America’s expansionist, big-stick foreign policy. To be a good American was to build your deltoids and acquire a powerful chest.
Rockwell tried exercising, hoping for a transformation. In the mornings, he diligently did push-ups. But the body he espied in the mirror—the pale face, the narrow shoulders and spaghetti arms—continued to strike him as wholly unappealing.
In 1914, Rockwell and his parents settled in a boardinghouse in New Rochelle, New York, which was then a veritable art colony. The Golden Age of Illustration was at its peak and New Rochelle’s elite included J.C. Leyendecker, the star cover artist for the Saturday Evening Post. There was more new art by American artists to be found in magazines than there was on the walls of museums.
Rockwell wanted mainly one thing. He wanted to get into the Saturday Evening Post, a Philadelphia-based weekly and the largest-circulation magazine in the country. It didn’t come out on Saturdays, but on Thursdays. No one waited until the weekend to open it. Husbands and wives and precocious children vied to get hold of the latest issue in much the same way that future generations would vie over access to the household telephone or the remote control.
Rockwell’s first cover for the Post, for which he was paid a whopping $75, appeared in the May 20, 1916, issue. It remains one of his most psychologically intense works. A boy who appears to be about 13 is taking his infant sister out for some fresh air when he bumps into two friends. The boy is mortified to be witnessed pushing a baby carriage. While his friends are clad in baseball uniforms and heading off to a game, the baby-sitting boy is dressed formally, complete with a starched collar, bowler hat and leather gloves. His eyes are averted and almost downcast as he hurries along, as if it were possible to physically escape the mocking gaze of his tormentors.
Rockwell became an immediate sensation, and his work began appearing on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post about once a month, as often as his hero and neighbor J.C. Leyendecker. The two illustrators eventually became close friends. Rockwell spent many pleasant evenings at Leyendecker’s hilltop mansion, an eccentric household that included Leyendecker’s illustrator-brother, Frank; his sister, Augusta; and J.C.’s male lover, Charles Beach. Journalists who interviewed Rockwell at his studio in New Rochelle were charmed by his boyish appearance and abundant modesty. He would invariably respond to compliments by knocking on wood and claiming that his career was about to collapse. Asked about his artistic gifts, he brushed them off, explaining, “I agree with Thomas Edison when he says that genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”