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No Swimming, Norman Rockwell | Arts & Activities
Jun 2015

No Swimming, Norman Rockwell

No Swimming, Norman Rockwell

DETAIL: Norman Rockwell (American; 1894–1978). No Swimming, 1921 Oil on canvas; 25.25″ x 22.25″. Norman Rockwell Art Collection Trust. Copyright: Artwork is in the public domain.

Feelings in Art


This month’s featured artist, Norman Rockwell (1894–1978), was born in the big city, but spent a lifetime creating scenes of small-town America. Born in New York City, Rockwell showed artistic talent at an early age. Anxious to become an artist, he dropped out of high school at 14, opting to focus on art at The National Academy of Design.

After two years, he switched to the Art Students League, the New York art school whose alumni reads like a who’s who of American art. Rockwell had some paying jobs while still a student, but his big break came when he received his first book illustration commission, at age 18. From that point until the end of his life, Rockwell worked steadily as an illustrator and painter.

After school, Rockwell went to work for Boys’ Life, the magazine of the Boy Scouts of America. Three years later he was named art director. In 1920 Rockwell made his first illustration for the Saturday Evening Post, a magazine Rockwell described as “the greatest show window in America.” Throughout his career he completed 323 covers for the Saturday Evening Post. (This month’s Art Print, No Swimming, was his 39th cover). “His Post covers captured the emotions of the times, not only that which was, but also what people would have liked life to be.” (americanillustration.org)

Although Rockwell’s work was beloved by the American public, it was savaged by art critics. His idealized, highly detailed, and realistic style was the complete opposite of what was considered modernist. According to Rockwell biographer, Deborah Solomon, “Norman Rockwell was demonized by a generation of critics who not only saw him as an enemy of modern art, but of all art.” (www.nytimes.com)

Yet, despite the criticism, people the world over were (and are) drawn to Rockwell’s themes of family, community, love, hope, dreams, heartbreak, and seeing the humor in life. Says Laurie Norton Moffatt, director of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, “The ideals in his work are timeless, and they resonate deeply. That’s a quality of great art throughout the centuries.”

In 1963, Rockwell chose to end his relationship with the Saturday Evening Post. For the next decade he turned his attentions to themes of American life of concern and interest to him personally, most notably civil rights, poverty, and the Vietnam War, creating many iconic illustrations for Look magazine.

Rockwell was a brilliant portraitist who painted many of the century’s most important people, including U.S. Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. In 1977 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Jimmy Carter, for “vivid and affectionate portraits of our country.”

In 2001, The Guggenheim Museum’s retrospective, Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, was one of the museum’s most successful exhibitions, setting an attendance record and galvanizing Norman Rockwell in the hearts and minds of thousands as “America’s Painter.”


Of the 322 paintings that became Saturday Evening Post covers, No Swimming was, and is, one of the all-time favorites. Action, surprise, drama, and a healthy dose of good fun mark this work. Just his third cover for the magazine, published in June, 1921, No Swimming depicts a small group of boys and a small dog fleeing from … something. The image begs the question: what are they running from? The central figure is a classic Rockwell representation of a typical American boy: skinny, freckle-faced, and prone-to mischief and comical situations. The narrative aspect of Rockwell’s work—Who are these characters, where have they been, what are they doing, and what will happen next?—combined with Rockwell’s exacting details, are the elements that people for decades have found irresistible.
by Colleen Carroll

From The June 2015 Issue Of Arts & Activities

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