Norman Rockwell’s Rare Illustrations for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Two of the greatest commentators on culture and sociological observers of American life, together.
By Maria Popova
Something magical happens when a beloved book is given a new dimension in the hands of a great visual artist — the sort of magic emanating from William Blake’s paintings for Milton’s Paradise Lost, Maurice Sendak’s formative etchings for Blake’s “Songs of Innocence,” Gustave Doré’s striking art for Dante’s Inferno, and Harry Clarke’s haunting interpretation of Goethe’s Faust.
In 1935, Norman Rockwell (February 3, 1894–November 8, 1978) joined the ranks of these masterful visual interpreters of beloved books: Connecticut’s Heritage Press commissioned Rockwell to illustrate a lavish limited edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (public library) — one of the greatest masterworks of American fiction.
Born in New York city exactly ten years after the publication of the Twain classic, Rockwell established himself as a cornerstone of American visual culture by depicting everyday life and the scintillating strangeness of the mundane. At first reluctant to illustrate Twain’s work, the tumult of his personal life during the 1930s — a divorce, a remarriage, a transformative trip to Paris with his new wife and their first son — precipitated a change of heart and he agreed to accept the Heritage Club commission. Obsessed with the allure of authenticity, Rockwell — like Maurice Sendak upon agreeing to illustrate the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm — traveled to the boyhood home of Samuel Clemens in Hannibal, Missouri, in order to get the minutest details of his visual vignettes right.
The result was an extraordinary convergence of two of the greatest cultural commentators and sociological observers of American life.
A leaflet issued to Heritage Club members in an edition of the book published shortly after Rockwell’s death reads:
It can be confidently asserted that Americans mourned the passing of Norman Rockwell in 1978 more than they would that of any other artist in the world. People who were familiar with the names of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt were less acquainted with the paintings of those immortals than with Norman Rockwell’s. He was a phenomenon in the realm of art, and his work provides a permanent sociological observation of the U.S.A. from the 1920s to the 1970s.
Complement the Rockwell-illustrated The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with Ralph Steadman’s illustrations for Orwell’s Animal Farm, Tove Jansson’s take on Alice in Wonderland, and Salvador Dalí’s paintings for Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the essays of Montaigne.
Published November 13, 2015