A fresh, well-researched study of artist Norman Rockwell’s treatment of race.
When readers think of Rockwell, they generally don’t picture a radical trailblazer who bucked conservative trends and broke racial stereotypes. Instead, they picture, well, his pictures—works that seem to embrace wholesome ideas: Thanksgiving dinner, grandmothers praying, puppies. Petrick (Beyond Time Management, 1998), in this smart, nuanced book, encourages readers to look again at Rockwell’s varied body of work. She argues that Rockwell was far from a closed-minded portrait artist; he actually went to great lengths to represent African-Americans and other minorities in his works, motivated by an intense desire to represent all of America. She provides many frequently overlooked examples, including “Working on the Statue of Liberty” (1946), which depicts five workers cleaning the famous statue; the model for the figures was white, but Rockwell painted one of the workers as having brown skin. He included minorities in his paintings throughout his career—not something easily done in mid-century America—and made race the topic of several high-profile pieces, including “The Problem We All Live With” (1964), in which a young black girl is shown entering a New Orleans school. Rockwell’s main employer, the Saturday Evening Post, had a policy stating that illustrations could only portray blacks in menial positions—a rule which Rockwell did his best to skirt around. Eventually, however, he tired of this limitation and began working for the more liberal Look, where he pursued projects with a distinct social bent, including “Murder in Mississippi” (1965), inspired by the 1964 killing of three civil rights activists. Petrick relays all this with clarity and insight, drawing on the portraits, Rockwell’s own biography and the ample scholarship that surrounds the artist. She also talks to the African-American models for some of his paintings, and these interviews can feel extraneous at times, as when the author occasionally delves too much into the models’ lives today. However, they highlight Rockwell’s desire to capture all facets of America and all of its stories. The irony, Petrick wisely points out, is that so few people choose to see this side of Rockwell today, preferring instead the “whitewashed” version. In this book, she manages to say something revealing about the artist—and about us.
A brief but enlightening social history of a great American artist.