Norman Rockwell may be known for his paintings of small-town America, but he’s got urban roots.
Rockwell’s birthplace and first home was in a brownstone at 206 West 103rd street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue. He was born there on February 3, 1894 (back when the doctor rushed to the pregnant wife’s side instead of the other way around).
Norman’s father Waring Rockwell was a clerk at a textile company and the neighborhood was on the upswing at the time “In spite of the troubled economy of the early 1890’s, considered by some experts to have encompassed the second worst depression in American history, the fin de siecle beckoned from the horizon of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, with its promise of a fully functioning I.R.T. subway, a completed world class cathedral and further blossoming of academic institutions and residential expansions along Riverside and Morningside parks,” wrote Laura Claridge in her book Norman Rockwell.
The family moved to 789 St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem when Norman was 2, and he lived in various other spots until the family moved to New Rochelle when he was 17.
Now the Edward J. Reynolds School — a high school that serves students who “have been pushed out of, or become disenchanted with their previous schools” — is asking the Community Board for permission to name the Southeast corner of 103rd and Broadway “Norman Rockwell Place.” Rockwell, like the students at Edward J. Reynolds, often felt disenchanted with the art world. He wrote about his motivation in a memoir:
“I believe strongly that a painting should communicate something to large numbers of people. So, according to some critics, my work is old-fashioned, trite, banal. This criticism worries me now and then, especially when a picture I’m trying to finish is going badly, but I’ve learned that I can’t change. I’m not a modern artist and never will be. I don’t see things the way modernists do, even though I enjoy studying their work. I’ve been an illustrator since I was 16 years old. I’m not particularly satisfied with my work — at least I’m always trying to improve it — but I believe in it.”
A community board committee will hold a meeting on the proposal on Tuesday, April 14 at 7 p.m. at 250 West 87th street, just West of Broadway.
Rockwell explained in his memoir why he chose to paint country themes and not city ones: “This view of life I communicate in my pictures excludes the sordid and ugly. I paint life as I would like it to be…The summers I spent in the country as a child became part of this idealized view of life. Of course, country people fit into my kind of picture better than city people. Their faces are more open and expressive, lacking the coldness of city faces. I guess I had a bad case of the American nostalgia for the clean, simple country life, as opposed to the complicated world of a city.”
Here’s one of Rockwell’s relatively rare paintings of cities, entitled “Walking to Church on a City Street” (1954):