Presidential elections through the eyes of America's favorite illustrator
Throughout his career, Norman Rockwell produced numerous illustrations related to the American presidential election. Beginning with the 1952 presidential campaign, and through 1960, Rockwell generated straightforward portraits of the major candidates for use on the covers of "The Saturday Evening Post." Rockwell also completed numerous illustrations for publication in periodicals and advertising campaigns depicting the engagement of Americans in the election process.
Shortly after Dwight D. Eisenhower received the GOP nomination, "The Saturday Evening Post" flew Rockwell from Vermont to Denver with less than a day's notice to capture the General's portrait. The end result was a cover and a three-page article illustrated and written by Rockwell about his meeting with Eisenhower, which essentially served as a personal endorsement of the future president; he even referred to himself in the last sentence as an "Eisenhower worshipper." Ben Hibbs, then editor of the "Post," wrote to Rockwell saying "If Ike is elected, as I think he will be, no small share of the credit should go to Norman Rockwell."
Norman Rockwell was flattered by the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company's invitation to sign and write the text of one of his advertisements for them, encouraging Americans to vote for a new president. In a letter to their advertising manager he noted "That picture of me in the voting booth is exactly the way I feel. I'm one of those guys who can't make up their mind. But I do vote."
Barry Goldwater's portrait session with Norman Rockwell was held on the 15th floor of the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco, near Cow Palace, where the Republican National Convention had just concluded. When Rockwell and his photographer arrived, the lobby was swarming with people, and the elevators had been closed off, so they had no choice but to walk the 15 flights of stairs up to the Senator's suite. He enjoyed working on the Goldwater portrait, remarking that he was "kind of handsome with a good chin."
Regarding the portrait session for his first image of President Johnson, Rockwell recalled, "That morning, I couldn't have done him the way he looked. He was furious about something and he was rushed and only gave me 20 minutes." He only convinced Johnson to smile for him by informing him that his portrait would be juxtaposed next to his opponent Barry Goldwater's in "Look" magazine. Rockwell was still dissatisfied with the end result, saying that Johnson "put on a little kind of a half-smile; it wasn't very good."
"Look" commissioned Rockwell to paint the candidates again in 1968, a year that witnessed the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the war in Vietnam, and President Johnson's decision to drop his re-election bid, for one of the most complex presidential elections in American history.
In January of 1967, President Johnson said that a portrait of himself by artist Peter Hurd was "the ugliest thing I ever saw," a comment which received much media attention. When Norman Rockwell was commissioned to paint Johnson's portrait in 1968, he didn't take any chances for fear of being similarly humiliated, later admitting that he "took his wattles off and shortened his ears." Of this decision he said, "It isn't cheating, it's being nice to them. You don't tell a person they've got wattles, do you?"
This particular portrait was never published for its intended use in "Look's" series on the 1968 presidential candidates because Johnson dropped his re-election bid on March 31 of that year.
This was Norman Rockwell's third portrait of Richard Nixon—of the five times he would portray him—and Nixon's third run for the presidency—of the four times he would seek it. As with his portrait of President Johnson, Norman Rockwell took the liberty of improving some of Richard Nixon's less flattering features, which included slimming down his cheeks, and giving him more hair.
Of all the portraits he generated of the 1968 presidential candidates, Norman Rockwell and the editors at "Look" thought the likeness of Robert F. Kennedy was the best of the series, "because he is so picturesque," reasoned Rockwell. He also completed a painting of Kennedy composed similarly to the other candidates' portraits, but Look preferred the informality of this version.
On June 5, 1968, just two months after the publication of this portrait, Kennedy was shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles; he died the following day.
James Sterling Paper Fashions Ltd. manufactured disposable paper dresses, a short-lived fashion trend of the late 1960s, emblazoned with images of Norman Rockwell's portraits of the 1968 presidential candidates. Nelson Rockefeller chose to use the dresses to promote his campaign and made them available for sale through his national headquarters. In addition, Sterling created a men's paper blazer that gave prominence to the Rockwell portrait, and was also sold through Rockefeller's administrative center.
In a letter to "Look's" Art Department regarding this portrait, Norman Rockwell sarcastically referred to the sitting vice president as "the beautiful Mr. Humphrey." Years later, in 1976, "The Saturday Evening Post" asked Humphrey to articulate his opinion of Rockwell as part of a tribute to the artist during the year of the nation's bicentennial. He stated, "Norman Rockwell has chronicled the very spirit of American life. Everyday events, often humorously portrayed, have been preserved in time through realistic illustrations. His meticulous craftsmanship is reflected in paintings which will evoke memories for generations to come."
Rockwell left a personal impression on each of the candidates he portrayed. As many of them went on to be elected to higher offices, they fondly remembered their encounter with him. An independent voter with liberal ideals, Rockwell seldom publicly expressed favor for one candidate over another. Of the few inspirational quotations he tacked to his studio walls, one read "The real test of a liberal is the willingness to listen fairly to a person with opposite opinions."
When President Gerald Ford wrote to Norman Rockwell in 1976, he may have already had it in mind to award the elderly artist with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor, which was presented to Rockwell in 1977.
On the awarding certificate, Ford wrote "Norman Rockwell has portrayed the American scene with unrivalled freshness and clarity. Insight, optimism, and good humor are the hallmarks of his artistic style. His vivid and affectionate portraits of our country and ourselves have become a beloved part of the American tradition."
Produced by Norman Rockwell Museum with support from the Norman Rockwell Family Agency. Based on the 2008 Norman Rockwell Museum exhibition, "Norman Rockwell: Illustrator in Chief."
Artwork, photographs, and archival documents: Norman Rockwell Museum Collections / ©Norman Rockwell Family Agency. All rights reserved. Text and videos: ©Norman Rockwell Museum. All rights reserved.
For more information: www.nrm.org
Exhibition video tour:
Venus Van Ness
Exhibition ©Norman Rockwell Museum. All Rights Reserved.