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Speaking Volumes: Celebrate Norman Rockwell’s life and works at your Manatee library

Sunday marks what would have been Norman Rockwell’s 125th birthday.

Rockwell gained fame throughout the 20th century as a remarkable illustrator who captured the essence of everyday life in America.

He was raised in the art scene of New York City and found success as a commercial artist early in life. He painted his first commissioned work, a series of Christmas cards, before his 16th birthday.

As a teenager, he reluctantly adopted the moniker, “Boy Illustrator,” becoming an artist and eventually an art director for Boys’ Life, the magazine of Boy Scouts of America.

In 1916, at age 22, Rockwell painted his first cover for The Saturday Evening Post. Rockwell was paid $75 for his illustration, “Boy with Baby Carriage,” and went on to illustrate another 321 Post covers over the span of 47 years.

The magazine’s most prolific artist, Rockwell gained national success and millions of fans through his portrayals of mid-century American life. Arguably his most famous illustrations, the Four Freedoms series, published in 1943, became a symbol of the U.S. home front during World War II.

The illustrations became a traveling exhibit that was visited by over a million people and raised $133 million in war bonds and stamps.

By the 1960s, Rockwell ended his association with The Saturday Evening Post and spent the next decade working for Look magazine. During this time, Rockwell continued to illustrate images of American life.

However, he shifted from gently depicting societal flaws to a more direct confrontation of issues such as civil rights and poverty. On his first cover for Look, Rockwell illustrated the era of desegregation with his piece “The Problem We All Live With,” which portrayed a young African American girl being escorted to school by U.S. Marshalls.

His work was met with both praise but also criticism from the public, but he continued to illustrate both meaningful and provocative works until the end of his career.

In 1973, Rockwell established a trust and placed his works in custodianship of the Normal Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, which is open to year-round visitors. And in 1977, he was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Rockwell died at his home in Stockbridge in 1978 at age 84. However, the iconic illustrator’s works continue to live on 30 years after his death.

For those looking for more information on the life of Norman Rockwell, the library has the biography “American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell” by Deborah Solomon and Mary Rawson’s documentary “Norman Rockwell: an American Portrait.”

If interested in revisiting Rockwell’s work, the library has “Norman Rockwell, a Definitive Catalogue,” by Laurie Moffatt, which includes every known illustration by the artist.

The library also has several anthologies of his Rockwell’s illustrations ranging in theme from Christmas to war to fishing.

Call your local branch for more information on available titles.

Central Library — 941-748-5555;

Braden River — 941-727-6079;

Island — 941-778-6341;

Palmetto — 941-722-3333;

Rocky Bluff — 941-723-4821;

South Manatee — 941-755-3892.

You also can access the library via the internet at mymanatee.org/library.

Katie Fleck is a librarian at the Central Library in downtown Bradenton. Speaking Volumes, written by Manatee County Public Library System staff members, is published each Sunday in the Bradenton Herald.

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