Rockwell's Varied Image of Blacks
The illustrator kept his own opinion out, but did he fail to take a stand against racism?
FOR the record, Norman Rockwell was a liberal Democrat, but one would generally be hard pressed to figure that out from his paintings. Rockwell (1894-1978) prided himself on never revealing his own opinions - ``he painted a portrait of Kennedy and one of Nixon and dared people to figure out whom he was voting for,'' Laurie Norton Moffatt, director of the Norman Rockwell Museum, says. Rockwell did have some partisan interests, however, such as the civil rights movement; but the problem for an illustrator, whose main job was to interpret images in other people's writings, is how not to compromise one's own beliefs. The tension between the fine and the commercial artist is quite evident in ``One Nation Indivisible?,'' the exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum on Main Street in Stockbridge, Mass., which highlights how the artist depicted blacks over the decades.Skip to next paragraph
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This is the first of a series of exhibitions beginning this year - itself a noteworthy event for a museum whose permanent exhibition has tended to be changed in only the most subtle ways from one year to the next - that will examine the artist and his work more closely and, in this case, sociologically. Other displays that highlight how war or the development of technology affected America as seen through Rockwell's art are on the drawing board.
This kind of sociological approach raises some knotty questions. Does one see in these works the ideas of the artist, or of the mass media, or some combination of the two? Maureen Hart Hennessey, curator at the Rockwell Museum who organized this exhibit, notes that by the 1950s, ``Rockwell was of such stature that, had he been assigned to illustrate a story that was against his personal beliefs, he was in the position to turn it down'' - in other words, the content of the imagery can be assumed to at least coincide with the artist's own point of view. That's not a terribly strong sense of the artist's own voice, but, with Rockwell, that may be all one gets at times.
Race relations were as thorny a subject as Rockwell would ever tackle and, in his customary manner, he shied away from advocacy and focused on lives of common people.
The earliest works tend to treat race issues by ignoring them. (Presumably, the exhibition is suggesting that Rockwell is mirroring the country's refusal to deal with these issues.) One sees ``Woman Fallen from Horse'' (1930s) and ``Boy in a Dining Car'' (1946) that both show well-to-do whites attended by blacks - in the first picture, it is a stableboy in raggedy clothes who points to where the horse had run off; in the second, a young man worriedly looks over a check trying to figure the tip while a smiling older black waiter watches.
Moving up in years, the next work dates from 1961 and was the cover for The Saturday Evening Post called ``The Golden Rule.'' This United Nations-themed painting includes peoples of all races and religions, from all continents, wearing their native dress, with the words ``Do unto others as you would have them do unto you'' printed across the cover. This ecumenical theme, suggesting tolerance and understanding for others, ``truly expressed his deepest beliefs,'' Laurie Norton Moffatt says. ``He believed in acceptance and love of all mankind and wanted to feature man in a positive, humane role. I think that is what appealed to him about the United Nations.''
She notes that ``there is a widely shared perception of Rockwell that he concentrated his efforts on sentimental visions of white, middle-class people.'' Rockwell may have been aware of that perception and may have wanted to change it; he was certainly unhappy with some of the new editors of The Saturday Evening Post, with which his work had been identified since 1916, who had fewer and fewer challenging assignments for him.
Rockwell was looking for a change. In 1959, his wife died and, the next year, he took an adult education painting class in Stockbridge, possibly to loosen up his characteristically precisionist style of realism. In 1963, he left the Post to work for Look magazine, where some of his most personally expressive work was to be published.