When you hear the name Norman Rockwell, a vision of relatable, whimsical caricatures may come to mind, and especially the notion of the idealised but unrealistic American dream. It’s been said he spread this idea around with his artwork, the beauty and neighbourly nature of the American suburbia which is depicted in his artwork and is meant to be timeless American culture – yet wasn’t accessible for many people during the time period and especially isn’t today with the great economic changes and disparity present in the US – however there is another side to the artist and indeed his creations.
Every character in Rockwell’s work is made to look earnest and relatable through the exaggeration of the minute details in their face and body language – they’re similar enough to us that we can feel a kinship to them, but just far enough away that we can see them as harmless and unable to do human wrongs and therefore positivity is spread into the media by the subjects. Rockwell had a passion for collecting models from random places – when inspiration struck by simply seeing someone he dragged them from lunches and jobs and cars to pose and draw or photograph them, fuelling the feeling that his artwork is very much in the same world as the viewer, only a brighter version; this becomes a dangerous notion however, as when I first saw his work before researching him I saw this as a way to spread American Dream propaganda, that is you only worked hard enough and were patriotic enough, you too could be without anything to worry about and live the idyllic family life. Now that I have done research, however, I have another idea of Rockwell.
He was criticised before for being humorous with his artworks, but that time had truly passed – his political streak truly began in the 40s with his version of the four freedoms, an idea by Roosevelt, although I still interpret this as in support of meritocratic ideals. The piece above titled ‘Freedom from Want’ is of a large white American family all enjoying a roast together, and while there’s nothing wrong with wanting this for yourself and your family, his noted “relatability” in his artwork makes it seem like you simply should have it, that this is the norm, and so if you don’t it must be some fault or choice of your own to “want”. In a few decades though, Rockwell branched out and began to explore more controversial issues for the better.
While he did indeed create “propaganda” on the surface, there is much more to his work – transitioning into the 1960s and 70s, Rockwell’s work took on a political statement of another kind, and that was of civil rights and social consciousness. Once, for an edition of ‘Post’ magazine he was asked to paint over a person of colour in one of his pieces because it conflicted with the magazine policy. He eventually left that magazine and instead began working for ‘Look’ and focused on commenting on important issues, notably Brown v Board of Education and its following events, a famous and controversial court case which aimed to end segregation in schools, which he was inspired by to paint “The Problem We All Live With”.
This art marked the start of his artistic campaign for racial and religious equality.
There’s always more to an artist than their most famous artwork, and an endless list of paintings more meaningful and more loved than their more popular competition despite being by the same artist, so despite the fact I snapped to a quick judgement on Norman Rockwell before writing this, I ask when you look at art, for you to really look at it.
There’s plenty to look at in our Summer Exhibition at D31, both online and at pour premises, so come and have a look!
All images used in this article are for educational purposed and not used for profit. All rights go to respective owner - Norman Rockwell Museum Collections