As American as Apple Pie: Norman Rockwell and his Artful Protests
“I paint life as I would like it to be.”
There are few things that are quintessentially “American”: apple pie, baseball, rock n’ roll, and Norman Rockwell. His name might not garner the recognition it once did (unless you’re a fan of Lana Del Rey), but his work has been regarded as the visual definition American dream. His presidential portraits and covers for The Saturday Evening Post glorified an era of America that we look on back with nostalgia. His scenes of men at work, children at play, servicemen coming home, sailors, cobblers and clowns captured America at her highest ideal.
He also managed to capture some of her uglier moments too.
Growing up in Brooklyn at the turn of the 20th century, Rockwell found himself surrounded by the harsh realities that came along with city life. To escape, Norman retreated into his idyllic sensibilities and began painting. As a teenager, he was named the art director for Boys’ Life, and spent most of his early career illustrating for children’s publications. He created his first work for The Saturday Evening Post at the young age of 22, a relationship that would come to define the first half of his career. The snippets of wholesome American life, which included children playing, pets, doctor’s visits, football players, with a very limited color palate, helped Rockwell to develop his signature aesthetic and style, even when the content of his work started to change.
At no point throughout his career was Rockwell universally loved. Critics downplayed his tendency toward nostalgia and for being too “regional”. In the early days of his career, his contemporaries referred to him as an illustrator. Rockwell never took offense, using it himself to describe his oeuvre, which by the end of his life included more than four thousand works.
But Rockwell couldn’t paint the picturesque forever. The change in his body of work started with The Four Freedoms, completed in 1943. The works were inspired by a speech President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave just as the United States was standing at the edge of World War II, where Roosevelt talked about his vision for the world after World War II:
The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want…means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear…means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.
That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.
The speech, which went on to shape the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, inspired Rockwell to action the same way Ruby Bridges would later in life. He used settings and figures from his hometown to depict each freedom, capturing the essence of Roosevelt’s speech, but framed them in such a way that everyday Americans could appreciate. Rockwell was never known as a particularly political figure, but Roosevelt’s speech spoke to values that Rockwell believed were fundamental not just to America, but across the globe.
When they were complete, The Post published them in a series of issues throughout 1943. Their printing marked a general turn in public sentiment, as prior to 1943, most Americans didn’t like the idea of participating in “foreign wars”. All four images went on to be used as propaganda for a war bond campaign and a touring exhibition, which generated over 132 million dollars in funds. Out of the four, his “Freedom from Want” has long endured in its popularity. Today it’s known as The Rockwell Thanksgiving, its relationship to World War II almost entirely forgotten.
“For 47 years, I portrayed the best of all possible worlds — grandfathers, puppy dogs — things like that,” Rockwell said in an interview at the age of 75. “That kind of stuff is dead now, and I think it’s about time.”
The first painting that inspired controversy for Rockwell was The Problem We All Live With. Completed in 1964, the work memorializes the landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education and a little girl named Ruby Bridges. In the painting, Ruby Bridges is the picture of innocence, dressed in white and clutching her schoolbooks, surrounded by words and signs of hate, yet is unmoved by all of it. Ruby was one of the first children to benefit from the Brown v. Board decision, and the white adults in her community saw to it that the transition wasn’t an easy one. Met with violence from grown-ups, and derision from schoolmates, she had to be escorted to school by federal marshals throughout the year. Inspired by the nightly news coverage of Ruby’s story, and an assignment from Look! magazine, Rockwell got to work.
When it was unveiled, The Problem We All Live With made people uncomfortable. Some people praised his bold vision, some wanted to cement the moment in time for future generations. Others thought Rockwell had lost his mind, that he had turned “liberal” and accused him of taking part in propaganda.
After The Problem We All Live With, Rockwell moved on to a piece called New Kids in the Neighborhood. Completed in 1967, it depicts the integration of Chicago’s Park Forest community. Integration had been hard-fought in local communities despite the Supreme Court’s mandate and Rockwell’s work offered a window into the experience from the point of view of children. The children, depicted front-and-center of the work, seem to fare well with one another, but the grown-up face in the window alludes to ever-present prejudice and suspicion that the new neighbors would be faced with.
Rockwell loved America, and the promise of what she could be. More than that, he loved what the American dream meant for his fellow countrymen. For some, America was a lazy summer day; for others, it was sitting around a supper table with loved ones, preparing to share a meal. For some, it was just the freedom to go to school, or moving into a new neighborhood in peace. With his paints and his brushes, Norman Rockwell captured his country from every angle: her promise, her spirit, her beauty, and, on occasion, her dark side.