By 1943, Norman Rockwell (1894–1978) had long been a household name. At almost 50 years old, he had become America’s illustrator, telling stories of American life through his fresh and often humorous paintings. His career officially began at 15, when he was commissioned to paint four Christmas cards. While still in his teenage years, he became the art director of the Boy Scouts of America’s magazine, Boys’ Life.
At the height of his artistic prowess, however, life would take an unfortunate turn. At his home in Arlington, Vermont, he had built his art studio, which held all of his paintings, brushes, paints, sketches, and costumes. In the very early morning hours of May 15, 1943, his son roused him from his sleep yelling that his studio was on fire. Indeed, it was. Unable to call the fire department because the fire had cut off the phone line, he told a hired man to go to the neighbor’s house and call the fire station. By the time Rockwell reached the studio, the structure was engulfed in flames. There was nothing to salvage. He acknowledged that it may have been he who accidentally started the fire by knocking some ashes from his pipe onto a seat cushion.
Despite the massive loss, Rockwell was rather stoic about it. Instead of lamenting the loss of his paintings and costumes, he lamented the loss of his numerous smoking pipes. Later that same day, however, several local men visited him and gave him some pipes, restoring one of his favorite pastimes.
Not all of his paintings were lost to the fire. His paintings of “The Four Freedoms” (“Freedom of Speech,” “Freedom of Worship,” “Freedom from Want,” and “Freedom from Fear”), inspired by Franklin Roosevelt’s speech to Congress, were on a national tour to help raise funds for war bonds. The tour raised more than $130 million (more than $2 billion today).
From the outside looking in, it appeared as though Rockwell had lost a lifetime of work. He didn’t see it that way. He decided to improve upon his lot by purchasing a different lot, though still in the same town of Arlington. His new studio would provide what he considered the perfect amount of natural light and was a safe 150 feet from his large farmhouse. He returned to his work, creating hundreds of illustrations, using various locals to model for him, garnering new friendships, and collecting more pipes.