Norman Rockwell’s Works Embody Magical Golden Age of Illustration

Before television and the movies, illustrated books and magazines were the entertainment and the escape for many Americans. Through skillful draftsmanship, thoughtful composition, and sharp wit, illustrators were able to create snapshots of climactic action in their drawings and paintings. Depicting historical, literary, or romantic themes, graphic artists were able to capture the imaginations and play to the fantasies of their viewers.

The Golden Age of Illustration, which occurred between 1880 and 1920, was a period of unprecedented excellence in magazine and book illustration, brought on by the introduction of photo-mechanical engraving that reproduced artwork with much greater fidelity. The poignant, humanistic works of the Golden Age had a magical way of connecting with their audience. The artists of this period captured the nostalgia of simple, innocent times and everyday life through accessible narrative.  As such, their pleasing content was ideally suited for the imaginative tales published in periodicals of the time.

No artist embodies the spirit of The Golden Age of Illustration as fittingly as Norman Rockwell. In particular, Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post illustrations are widely considered to be the ultimate encapsulation—and certainly the most sought after material—of this magical period in American Art.

Heritage Auctions is honored to offer ten works by Norman Rockwell in our May 4 auction of American Art.

Rockwell’s Benjamin Franklin’s Sesquicentennial, formerly in the collection of the actress Debbie Reynolds, graced the cover of the May 29, 1926 Saturday Evening Post.  Commissioned in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the painting is significant as Rockwell’s only cover illustration out of over 500 featuring a Founding Father.  The painting’s popularity led to its reproduction on the cover of the July 4, 1976 Chicago Tribune Magazine, kicking off the country’s Bicentennial year, and to its inclusion in twelve major exhibitions nationwide since the early 1970s.

On July 4, 1776, fifty-six delegates to the Second Continental Congress met at the Pennsylvania State House and signed the Declaration of Independence, officially declaring the thirteen American colonies a new nation.  In this 1926 Post cover, Rockwell spotlights the noted statesman-writer-inventor-educator Franklin alone among these Founding Fathers.

Rockwell’s Franklin embraces the look of an everyday citizen, shedding a formal powdered wig and opting for a simpler coat without gold embroidery.  Even more important, Rockwell’s Franklin directly gazes at the viewer, involving him in this momentous declaration he is about to sign:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Also included in our May 4 auction are studies for two of Rockwell’s iconic Saturday Evening Post Covers: The Census Taker, and Before the Shot.

The Census Taker was featured on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in 1940, a decade considered by many to be the artist’s most successful working period. This study was exhibited at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.

Before the Shot, certainly one of Rockwell’s most recognizable illustrations, graced the Post cover in 1958. This precious study was exhibited alongside the completed oil painting at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Whether in an historical portrait or in a sweet scene of a child at the doctor’s office, Rockwell was a master of capturing people’s imaginations. Covering timeless subjects from every aspect of life, the art of Norman Rockwell will continue to entertain young and old alike for years to come.

Visit our fine art department to view upcoming auctions and to browse our auction archives.

Posted by Heritage Editorial

This article was written as a collaborative effort by multiple experts within the category at Heritage Auctions.

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