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.

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.

``He changed the whole style of his work after 1963,'' Moffatt stated. ``Rockwell's subject matter became more current events material. He traveled all over the world and did paintings on the Peace Corps, on the Soviet Union, on the Mideast. He also began painting some of the problems of the time.''

Among the paintings that were used in Look include ``The Problem We All Live With'' (1964), and ``New Kids in the Neighborhood'' (1967), both of which focus attention on young children and place blacks at the center of the picture rather than as observers of the action.

``The Problem We All Live With'' shows a young black girl in a starched white dress being escorted to an all-white elementary school in New Orleans by four federal marshals as part of a controversial integration order, and we look down on her both figuratively and literally. The marshals are visible only up to their shoulders, and the girl walks by a wall, where the word ``Nigger'' has been written and where a tomato had recently been thrown. Her head is down; she is trying not to see, perhaps.

``New Kids in the Neighborhood'' presents us with a young black brother and sister who look across at three white children from this white neighborhood they are moving into. The nervousness of being new kids on the block is used to make an analogy about blacks in the white world.

These were angry times when Rockwell painted these pictures, and the artist moved nervously into the new situation that seemed to call for some presentation of the problems. These paintings seem to say to us: ``If we could all just stop arguing and really try to understand one another, things would be better.'' Considering the passions of the era, this can seem tame and almost neutral. The decision to focus on children, the innocents, rather than on grown men and women - which was crucial for Rockwell, as he wanted to point up those who didn't cause the problems but are affected by them - moves the debate from law and ethics to sentimentality.

It takes a major generational leap to see these images as even controversial. ``Look was a magazine of middle America,'' Maureen Hart Hennessey says, ``and it was just starting to sink in that there was a problem in race relations, after Martin Luther King had been staging boycotts and marches for over a decade. `The Problem We All Live With' really surprised people, both because of the subject of the picture and that Rockwell did it.''

Walt Reed, a dealer and longtime Rockwell friend, pointed out that this painting, which records events that had taken place a full five years earlier, startled viewers into seeing that ``here is this little girl who can only go to school with US marshals escorting her because she might be attacked. A lot of people didn't know.''

Some of the later works in this exhibit are even bolder, that is, less open to more neutral interpretations. ``Southern Justice'' (1965), which documents the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner by racists in Philadelphia, Miss., is a starkly depicted scene that is painted in shades of brown, only highlighted with red bloodstains.

Two other oil sketches, both called ``Blood Brothers'' (1967), are images of young men - one white, one black - who lie side by side in death. In one picture, the two are dressed in street clothes (were they on the same or opposing sides in a riot?); in the other, the two are soldiers. Neither painting was ever published in Look, for which one or the other was originally intended (they were found in Rockwell's studio after his death), but they both reflect problems of the day, either violent demonstrations or the Vietnam war. Rockwell was in his mid-70s at this time and finally seemed ready to speak his mind. Possibly that willingness made him draw back and not publish the pictures.

NORMAN ROCKWELL EXHIBITION The paintings shown on these pages are part of an exhibit, `One Nation Indivisible? Images of Black Americans: 1934-1967 By Norman Rockwell.'' The show runs through January 1990 at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

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