Friend, neighbor, and fellow blogger Christine at PurpleCar recently posed the interesting question to me of what I think Norman Rockwell would paint today. Christine placed an image of Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With (above, from 1964), which shows federal marshals guarding 6-year-old Ruby Bridges on her way to elementary school in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1960, next to a photo of President Barack Obama’s daughter Sasha walking to school accompanied by the Secret Service. For many people, Norman Rockwell, born February 3, 1894, is the saccharine painter of hokey Americana. I recall visits to the doctor as a child and seeing on the examining room wall a print of Rockwell’s illustration of the little girl holding up a doll so that the doctor can hear its heart. And, yet, Rockwell, especially late in his career, addressed social issues such as civil rights. If Rockwell were alive today, I think he’d be painting Sasha Obama and all the ills of today’s American society, yet still with the basic optimism at the core of his art.
It’s important to remember that Rockwell was primarily an illustrator, selling his images to commercial magazines for a wide audience, most famously The Saturday Evening Post. The Post placed many restraints on Rockwell, one of which was to keep the subject matter light and hopeful and for their primarily middle class, white readership. Ruby Bridges may be the first black face Rockwell painted for the Post. Even in the midst of the Great Depression, Rockwell was ordered to keep things cheerful, so he focused on quaint images of small town America, what people often refer to as “the heartland.” Yet, the financial crisis weighed so heavily on the hearts of Americans that Rockwell couldn’t restrain himself entirely from depicting it somehow. On the cover of the January 18, 1930 issue of The Post, Rockwell placed his Stock Exchange Quotations (above), which shows a group of people anxiously reading that day’s stock returns. You can’t see their faces, but their bodies clearly express their angst. In 1943, Rockwell painted his series called The Four Freedoms, including Freedom from Want, which features a mammoth turkey meal with the works that the survivors of the Great Depression dreamt of.
“I paint life as I would like it to be,” Rockwell once said to his critics. People still confuse Rockwell’s idealism for a lack of sophistication. There’s a depth of faith in the goodness of people in Rockwell’s art that looks like naïve blindness if you fail to understand just how fully Rockwell comprehended the failings of American society. The Problem We All Live With overtly expressed the problems Rockwell had been covertly covering for decades, always wishing he could break free of the chains of commercial necessity. Rockwell’s The Golden Rule (above, from 1961) beautifully brings together the whole family of humanity under the banner of doing unto others as you would have others do unto you, an ideal found not just in Christianity but in almost all major religions in some form. If Rockwell were alive today, I’d like to think that he would be more than a commercial illustrator pandering to the lowest common denominator, but rather an artist challenging us to look at ourselves through his art and to live up to the ideals he put into pictures.