When people think of Norman Rockwell the term “human rights activist” doesn’t necessarily come to mind. That’s not to say that his name evokes a sense of racism but, he’s considered by many to be the embodiment of Americana during a time when America wasn’t the land of equal opportunity it so claimed to be. Like a baseball bat, a slice of apple pie, and a Thanksgiving turkey, Rockwell’s art was part of a vernacular within mainstream American advertising. In fact, it is partly because of he that we associate these things as icons of American culture. The man’s art created an ideal which captured a romanticized view of everyday life. His paintings show a portrait of America in a way that it “could” have been, even if perhaps it wasn’t. It’s also important to remember that he, like so many other artists, was painting under the art direction of the magazines through which he was hired. When given the opportunity, like in his 1943 “Four Freedoms” series and the 1960 painting called “The Problem We All Live With,” Rockwell had the creative drive and the sense of social consciousness to rise above an art director’s safe-haven and accurately capture public sentiment.
I believe Rockwell’s mastery begins with his understanding and use of light sources and color theory to create emotion within the design of his paintings. These two elements draw us in. Another of Rockwell’s biggest strengths was his ability to encapsulate romanticized notions of life within a single piece of art. Paintings like “Saying Grace,” “Walking to Church,” “The Runaway,” and “Going and Coming” are familiar pieces of American iconography.
Painted in 1943 during the height of World War II, The Four Freedoms were inspired by the 1941 State of the Union Address by United States President Franklin Roosevelt delivered to the 77th United States Congress on January 6, 1941. During the speech, FDR identified four essential human rights (Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom From Want and Freedom From Fear) that should be universally protected and serve as a reminder of why America was fighting in World War II. I don’t think this excuses the discrimination being suffered by African, Latin, and Japanese Americans in America’s 1941 cultural climate, but I would argue that the personal emotion conveyed by Rockwell in the quality of these paintings show a man who believed very strongly in full human rights.
Freedom of Speech
Freedom of Worship
Freedom From Want
Freedom From Fear
In 1960 Rockwell, who had been painting almost exclusively for The Saturday Evening Post since 1916, painted his first cover for Look Magazine. It was entitled “The Problem We All Live With.” With Look he was free to produce work with the kind of sentiment he’d been wanting to since he created the Four Freedoms seventeen years prior. America was changing and so was Rockwell. When his last painting for the Post was published in 1963, it marked the end of a publishing relationship that had included 321 cover paintings. His work for Look quickly began showcase civil rights, poverty, and space exploration. It’s interesting to think that some of his later work was also part of the changing sense of American iconography in the 1960s.
Ruby Bridges integrated the New Orleans school system in 1960. The Problem We All Live With is a depiction of Ms. Bridges being escorted to her class by federal marshals in the face of hostile crowds. Her’s is the only face we can see. Her white dress and dark skin are in stark contrast to the beiges and grays which surround her. Her pose and expression are stoic. If there’s fear in her eyes stemming from the fruit exploding around her—or the ignorant scrawling on the wall next to her—we can’t see it. Compositionally, Rockwell bookends the painting with a pillar of men surrounding Ms. Bridges. He positions her slightly to the left of the center of the frame, making sure our eyes notices the word on the wall beside her as well as the exploded tomato. Ms. Bridges, however, has walked past those words and that hate. Rockwell wanted to make sure we knew this. She’s triumphant.
This painting invokes feelings of hope, defiance, and anger from within me. I feel Rockwell’s sense of hope for American civil rights. I feel the defiance and pride of a little girl on her way to school. I also feel the anger within the country. All these same emotions still exist in today’s America.
Paintings like these show how much Rockwell had to say about socially progressive current events. Years after his passing his work is still just as recognizable. Seeing a Rockwell in person is like a sensory overload. He even spent hours on full-size charcoal studies prior to painting. In 1977, Norman Rockwell received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States of America’s highest civilian honor. It is very important that we remember Rockwell for the work he produced in his last fifteen years. It shows self-awareness in what America was going through during the 1960s.
Happy New Year!