His covers for the Saturday Evening Post, 318 of them over some 40 years, made him the most popular illustrator of his day. His name became synonymous with that magazine, although he did dozens of illustrations for other publications and books, and painted murals besides. His secret was in endowing his subjects with just the right expression or posture to tell the story of the scene in an instant.
Rockwell was born in New York City in 1894, and moved to suburban Mamaroneck with his family when he was nine. He left high school to study at the National Academy of Design's art school, earning his keep by designing cards and teaching actress Ethel Barry-more to paint.
At 16, he transferred to the Art Students League to learn, as he put it, "to paint storytelling pictures." At 17, he was already illustrating books, and at 18, he was art director for the magazine Boys Life. To learn more about his craft, he shared a studio for a time with Clyde Forsyth' an established illustrator.
For his covers, Rockwell would make a small sketch of his scene, then make individual drawings of each element that was to make up the painting. Next he would make a full-size charcoal drawing of the entire scene, and finally, before actually starting the painting, color sketches. In later life he also worked from photographs, sometimes projecting them onto the canvas and sketching in the outlines in charcoal.
During World War I, he served in the navy, but spent his time painting official portraits. In the early 1950s, he did patriotic murals on the Four Freedoms for the Nassau Tavern in Princeton, New Jersey. The oil sketch for one of these murals, Freedom of Speech (1952), is in the collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art.
From 1960 until his death in 1978, Rockwell spent much of his time doing large painted photomontages of contemporary personages and events.