In 1941, Norman Rockwell created his first cover image of Willie Gillis, his fictional soldier who would ultimately appear in 11 covers for The Saturday Evening Post. Rockwell had devised the idea of doing a series on the life of a soldier. He chose Robert Otis Buck, a local Arlington boy as his model. Buck had just the innocent looks Rockwell was in search of; Buck had also been exempted from the draft, making him an ideal candidate for a series meant to take place over time. Rockwell stated, "I had conceived of the idea of a series of Post covers depicting the army experiences of a young civilian, sort of an innocent fellow who found himself caught up in an extremely strange life." (Norman Rockwell: My Adventures as an Illustrator, New York, 1994, pp. 326-27) Willie Gillis: USO, the finished version of which appeared on the February 7, 1942 cover of The Saturday Evening Post, is perhaps the most charming of all of the 'Gillis' covers. Willie Gillis: USO depicts the young soldier being fed and coddled by very attractive female representatives of the United Service Organization. The USO was founded the year prior to provide G.I.'s and their families with services and entertainment during active duty. Willie's expression, a blend of surprise and pleasure, typifies Rockwell's most successful compositions, resulting in an image that lends humor, even in wartime, to the most challenging of subjects and communicates the strong moral compass of both the artist and our nation.
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ABOUT THE ARTIST
The pictures of Norman Perceval Rockwell (1894-1978) were recognized and enjoyed by almost everybody in America. The cover of The Saturday Evening Post was his showcase for over forty years, giving him an audience larger than that of any other artist in history. Over the years, he depicted there a unique collection of Americana, a series of vignettes of remarkable warmth and humor. In addition, he painted a great number of pictures for story illustrations, advertising campaigns, posters, calendars and books.
As his personal contribution during World War II, Rockwell painted the famous “Four Freedoms” posters, symbolizing for millions the war aims as described by President Franklin Roosevelt. One version of his “Freedom of Speech” painting is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Rockwell left high school to attend classes at the National Academy of Design, and later studied under Thomas Fogarty and George Bridgeman at the Art Students League in New York. His two greatest influences were the completely opposite titans Howard Pyle and J.C Leyendecker.
His early illustrations were done for St. Nicholas magazine and other juvenile publications. He sold his first cover painting to the Post in 1916, and ended up doing over 300 more. Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson sat for him for portraits, and he painted other world figures, including Nassar of Egypt and Nehru of India.
An important museum has been established in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where he maintained his studio. Each year, tens of thousands visit the largest collection of his original paintings extant.