Norman Rockwell and the Civil Rights Paintings

Fifty years after he first started doing work for the magazine, Norman Rockwell was tired of doing the same sweet views of America for the Saturday Evening Post in the early 1960s. The great illustrator was increasingly influenced by his close friends and loved ones to look at some of the problems that was afflicting American society. Rockwell had formed close friendships with Erik Erickson and Robert Coles, psychiatrists specializing in the treatment of children and both were advocates of the civil rights movement.

His most profound influence was his third wife, Mary L. “Molly” Punderson, who was an ardent liberal and who urged him in new directions. On December 14, 1963, Rockwell did his last cover for the Saturday Evening Post and he began working for Look magazine. Look magazine finally gave Norman Rockwell the opportunity to express his social concerns.

Rockwell’s first painting was The Problem We All Live With, one of his greatest paintings. This painting depicts Ruby Bridges, the little girl who integrated the New Orleans school system in 1960, being escorted to her class by federal marshals in the face of hostile crowds. It’s a simple picture, the disembodied figures of 4 stiff suited men and the vulnerable yet defiant figure of a school age African American girl marching lockstep. To the right is a tomato staining a wall, obviously thrown at the girl but just missing. My eyes focus on the girl and her immaculate white, a contrast to the graffiti stained wall in the background. As a painting it’s a wonder, with it’s composition conveying Rockwell’s message in a few simple figures. To look at the picture, go here.

An even greater departure from Rockwell’s usual sweet America paintings is Southern Justice, painted in 1963. Rockwell did a finished painting, but the editors published Rockwell’s color study instead, and I think his color study conveys the terror of the scene more successfully. It depicts the deaths of 3 Civil Rights workers who were killed for their efforts to register African American voters. It is done in a monochrome sienna color, and it is a horrifying vision of racism. A look of it can be seen here.

Rockwell’s most optimistic view of the civil rights movement was Negro In The Suburbs, painted in 1967. It depicts an African American family moving into a white suburban neighborhood. The African American children look over by the kids in the neighborhood, with all the children sharing a love of baseball, America’s game. This painting can be found in this gallery.

My favorite Norman Rockwell paintings were those that he painted from the 1940s to the 1960s. Rockwell’s paintings for Look were I think some of his greatest, and they showed an artist that was always willing to take risks. Rockwell is often nowadays seen nowadays as a conservative painter of American myth, but these Civil Rights paintings show a liberal sensibility concerned about the problems of living up to our American ideas. These paintings are, in my estimation, comparable to Goya’s paintings of the horrors of the massacre of the Spanish people by Napoleon’s troops, or Daumier’s illustrations of the corrupt political order.

In the year 2001, I visited the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachussetts. It is situated in a beautiful wooded area. When I visited the museum and looked at Rockwell’s paintings face to face, I felt like I was visiting an important part of American history. I didn’t see the Civil Rights paintings during my visit, but I saw many of his other paintings and it gave me an appreciation of Rockwell as an artist. To know more, look here.

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