By Craig Davis, CraigslegzTravels.com
STOCKBRIDGE, Mass. – The unexpected discovery during a visit to the Norman Rockwell Museum was that the illustrator of Twentieth Century Americana was a radical.
Not necessarily during his time, but in the context of ours.
One of the benefits of visiting a museum is it provides a glimpse into the past. No visual artist created a window into America over the past century as expansive as Norman Rockwell.
I was ambivalent about touring the Rockwell Museum during a fall trip to the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. The deciding factor was a special exhibit of Maxfield Parrish and N.C Wyeth being featured at the museum.
Artistically, I much prefer Parrish. But the experience opened my eyes to a greater appreciation and better understanding of Rockwell.
During his career, Rockwell was generally dismissed by art critics. His heartwarming and humorous depictions of common people in everyday situations, many of which graced 321 covers of the Saturday Evening Post over nearly 50 years, were seen as corny, sentimental and idealized.
A closer look at his work on display reveals there was more to it in storytelling, attention to detail and subject matter.
Highlighting Four Freedoms
At the center of it is the Four Freedoms collection, Rockwell’s depiction of the human entitlements at stake in World War II as articulated by President Franklin Roosevelt in a famous speech in early 1941.
They were, in order:
“Freedom of speech” … “Freedom of worship” … “Freedom from want” … “Freedom from fear.”
Imagine that, a president who put top priority on protecting the First Amendment rather than trying to suppress it.
Roosevelt’s call to arms, coming months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, generated little enthusiasm initially from an isolationist-leaning public.
After the United States entered the war, Rockwell produced posters for the Army to inspire production of needed ammunition. He proposed illustrating Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms to spur support of the war effort but was rebuffed.
Instead he produced them for the Saturday Evening Post. It wasn’t until they appeared on four consecutive covers of the magazine in 1943 that the Four Freedoms campaign caught on. A national tour for the paintings raised nearly $133 million in war bonds.
Rockwell’s most famous work has received renewed attention in 2018 with the Smithsonian commissioning four artists to update the Four Freedoms vision for the 75th anniversary of the originals.
The modern versions show a more diverse twenty-first century reality than the white male dominated America Rockwell knew and commonly portrayed.
Tribute to journalism
The big knock on Rockwell during his career was that he wasn’t a fine artist. He took no issue with that, describing himself as an illustrator.
Through a long career producing magazine covers, he was more closely aligned with journalism than the art world.
Another of his prominent paintings at the museum, “Norman Rockwell Visits a Country Editor,” pays tribute to a profession that has been labeled “the enemy of the people” by the current administration.
In Rockwell’s time newspapers were viewed as the voice of the people. He produced eight covers about journalism for the Post during the 1940s.
For this one, he spent three days in Paris, Mo., studying the operation of the Monroe County Appeal. His painting shows editor Jack Blanton at work on the newspaper’s April 12, 1945 edition about the death of President Roosevelt.
The scene includes Rockwell coming through the door of the newspaper office with portfolio under his arm.
The original oil painting hung outside a bar in the National Press Club in Washington for years until it was sold at auction for $11.5 million in 2015.
Standing up for civil rights
Later in his career, Rockwell’s work took on a more serious focus as he veered from an idealized view of America to the realities of the civil rights movement. He had ended his association with the Saturday Evening Post due to restrictions on political viewpoints he could express and received more leeway with Look Magazine.
Most notable among three illustrations for Look highlighting racial violence was “The Problem We All Live With.”
It shows 6-year-old African American Ruby Bridges escorted by federal marshals to her first day attending a previously all-white elementary school in New Orleans. In the background is a wall defaced by racial slurs and a smashed tomato.
It has become an iconic image of the civil rights movement. President Obama had Rockwell’s original oil painting of the scene displayed in the White House outside the Oval Office for a while in 2011.
Appreciation of Rockwell, who died in 1978, has grown. Not by critics, but among peers.
It was notable that a 1968 exhibit of his work in New York City was attended by some prominent artists, including abstract painter Willem de Kooning and Andy Warhol.
While Rockwell and Warhol might seem to have little in common beyond falling under the same broad brush of pop art, Warhol purchased two of Rockwell’s paintings.
When the Rockwell Museum featured Warhol in 2017 in the exhibit “Inventing America: Rockwell and Warhol” their differences were evident.
But in their respective scenes of violent encounters at the height of the civil rights movement of the ’60s that were displayed, Rockwell’s “Murder in Mississippi” (1965) stood out as more poignant and effective than Warhol’s “Birmingham Race Riot” (1964).
It’s enough to realize there’s more to Norman Rockwell’s view of America than he’s often given credit for. Even while I still consider Maxfield Parrish more visually intriguing.