top of page

Norman Rockwell: Toward a Democratic History Painting

Norman Rockwell, “The Problem We All Live With,” 1964, oil on canvas, 36 x 58″. Story illustration for “Look” magazine. Courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Museum, Philadelphia

by DeWitt Cheng

“You are Anglo-Saxons. You are armed and prepared, and you will do your duty. If you find the Negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls, and if he refuses, kill him, shoot him down. We shall win tomorrow if we have to do it with guns.” 

—Alfred Waddell

1. The Peculiar Institution


If the name of Alfred Waddell does not ring a bell, his sentiments certainly do. Waddell and his fellow white-supremacist Red Shirts initiated the massacre of blacks and a political coup d’état in Wilmington, North Carolina, in August, 1898. Brandishing a White Declaration of Independence, they stormed and destroyed a black-owned progressive newspaper; murdered perhaps three hundred blacks; and invaded City Hall, threatening elected officials there with summary execution, and leading them to the train station with nooses tied around their necks and promises of certain death if they returned. They even threatened the governor with lynching, forcing him to hide in a train baggage car. A local historian praised the new Waddell administration: “The men who took down their shotguns and cleared the Negroes out of office … were men of property, intelligence, culture …. clergymen, lawyers, bankers, merchants. They are not a mob. They are revolutionists asserting a sacred privilege and a right.” State officials appalled by the massacre tried to prevent a recurrence — by further disenfranchising the black vote.


The dark side of white supremacy that shocked the nation on January 6 is no longer hidden, it’s right out in the open. No longer is the bigotry rationalized away as excess zeal by “good people” upset with bad economics or the theatrical she toys promulgated by right-wing think tanks: fake news, enemies of the people, caravans, the China virus, the ‘stolen’ election, critical race theory, etc. The demographic change well under way, the browning of America, has brought to light the fraud and corruption of those benefiting from America’s systemic racism and classism, and the lawless violence from those already exploited, fearful and angry, who are cleverly misdirected to seek out scapegoats. Current attempts by Republican-controlled state legislatures to roll back voting rights for minorities replay the measures taken by the Democratic South after Reconstruction to preserve white dominance and dominion from the egalitarian reforms promulgated by the Party of Lincoln. We are repeating the sad history of the late nineteenth history, with the parties’ roles reversed. Republican voters are often ignorant of the great polarity change that began in the late 1960s


The Republican Party, for a century exemplified by Lincoln and Emancipation, reversed course in the tumultuous year of 1968, wooing the southern white vote that had deserted Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats after passage of the Voting Rights Act (1965). That bipartisan legislation, which passed with the votes of moderate and liberal Republicans, attempted to restore the minority-voting protections instituted after the Civil War, reforms that had ben sadly eroded over time by state government houses, a compliant judiciary, and the KKK — not a mob, of course. Now, two generations after Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the GOP has chosen to pursue and retain power without the ideological-cover code words employed by Nixon and later Ronald Reagan.


Alfred Waddell was a leader of the 1898 Wilmington insurrection. He held the office of major of Wilmington from 1898 to 1906. He forced his predecessor's resignation at gunpoint.


Reagan, if you are old enough to remember, began his 1980 campaign in Oxford, Mississippi, near the Philadelphia site of the infamous 1964 Mississippi Burning killing of three civil-rights workers, with a speech championing states’ rights, the Confederacy’s genteel euphemism for its “peculiar institution” of slavery. The historically ignorant Trump has cynically returned us to the 1850s, and, to paraphrase The Great Emancipator, now we are again engaged in a great civil war, testing whether our democratic nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

2. A Nation of Benign Villagers


What has this tragic history got to do with Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), the artist-illustrator of homey Americana, whose name was a mass-audience byword for half a century, but a joke for art-world sophisticates? Rockwell’s art has become associated with the glorification of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture. This is only partly fair, in that his body of work constructed the myth of a benign and gentle small-town America that proved so endearing to tens of millions of Americans. His was a gently humorous Dickensian prettification of the countries less attractive realities. This is partly unfair, because the artist was liberal in his personal convictions, although he generally did not to make them public, preferring to be considered an independent and largely apolitical. 


“I was born a white Protestant with some prejudices which I am continuously trying to eradicate,” said Rockwell. “I am angry at unjust prejudices in other people or myself.” In 1948 he voted for Socialist Norman Thomas — Thomas’ platform sounds a lot like Bernie Sanders’ — and preached through his paintings the New England virtues of tolerance and humor. He avoided the dark side of things largely because of his own predilection for the healthy and happy moments of daily life, and the dictates of George Lorimer, his longtime editor at The Saturday Evening Post. Lorimer was a self-made man who promoted individual self-reliance to an audience eager to believe in the American dream.


Norman Rockwell, “The Gossips,” photos and paintings, 1948. ©SEPS: Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN.

Over his long career, Rockwell produced some 4,000 images, including 800 magazine covers and paintings for 150 corporate ad campaigns. His laborious process involved creating a narrative idea and then outfitting it with props and posed, paid models — “real people,” whom he scouted out among family, friends and even strangers on the street, who were, as he achieved iconic familiarity, happy to pose for the famous artist. He amassed props and costumes as had the illustrators he adored in his youth. When his studio burned down in 1943, he consoled himself for the lost art and artifacts with a characteristically wry sketch, as always impeccably rendered. Rockwell worked seven days a week and always had a considerable backlog. This seems to have been only in part the product of his financial situation. His psychological conviction was that unless he worked ceaselessly, he would revert to the graceless, awkward ‘lump’ he had been as a child. 


“All I had was the ability to draw … I began to make it my whole life. I drew all the time. Gradually my narrow shoulders, long neck, and pigeon toes became less important to me. My feelings no longer paralyzed me. I drew and drew and drew.”


An illustrator friend joked that “Rockwell’s hobbies are work and work.” Rockwell took pride in his hard-won fame and success as America’s supreme mythographer, succeeding his idols, Howard Pyle (whose work Rockwell would have selected for potential desert-island exile, along with a couple of Rembrandts); and his friend and colleague, Joseph C. Leydendecker, to whom he paid understated tribute: “Apart from my admiration for his technique, his painting, his character and his diligence, he didn’t have that much impact upon my work.” But while Rockwell's artistic superpowers and stamina granted him rewards, he never took success for granted, conscious of illustrator colleagues who had committed suicide when their work lost popularity. So Rockwell took commissions that may appear to us unworthy of his developing talents, and always felt overworked and harried by deadlines. He took a perverse New Englander’s pleasure in frugally not charging corporate clients the full fare he could have commanded.

3. Artist or Illustrator?


Rockwell was often restless in what he saw as the subservient role of illustrator, even as he lent his magic touch to Hallmark cards, Boy Scout calendars, Sun-Maid raisins and McDonald’s hamburgers. He occasionally hankered for art-world respectability even though the art world had long since redefined the role of drawing, which he saw as the touchstone of art (despite his eventual use of photography, as in 1948’s “The Gossips”). He neatly captured the dilemma in a 1962 work, “Art Connoisseur,” with its well-dressed bourgeois viewer, his back to us, like and yet so very unlike the figures in a German Romantic landscape painting, contemplating Rockwell’s well-executed pastiche of Jackson Pollock. 


He also played with ideas about representation that artists and art critics might have accepted had they been less middlebrow and folksy and more ironic, as in “Framed” (1946), with its portly museum guard carrying an empty picture frame and being framed by it; or “Triple Self Portrait” (1960), a revisitation of an earlier painting, “Artist Facing Blank Canvas (Deadline)” (1938), with the artist at his easel. Here, seen from behind, he contemplates his reflection, while his charcoal sketch avatar regards us quizzically, all three Rockwells equipped with painted pipes that are decidedly not those of Magritte. 


Norman Rockwell, “Art Connoisseur,” 1961, oil on canvas, 37” 3/4 x 31 1/2”. Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, January 13, 1962. Private collection.

Rockwell occasionally referred to himself as an artist, or, more specifically, a genre artist: “that’s spelled g-e-n-r-e,” he explained to an interviewer. Critics have pointed out his stylistic ties to Dutch genre painters, especially the humorous ones such as Jan Steen, and to the realist painters of Germany and the Scandinavian countries. Such a Dickensian amalgam of humor and realism would be treated with distain after World War II: “Geep-gosh-shickisism” was the memorable put-down of one critic. Another factor was Rockwell’s determination that his works speak to the viewer immediately, without the need for intermediaries. The historian Paul Johnson speculates: “Critics dismissed Rockwell for the usual trade union reasons. They have nothing to say about pictures which explain themselves. Rockwell gave them no intermediary function.” Rockwell’s summation of his position: “I paint storytelling pictures which are quite popular but unfashionable.”


Norman Rockwell, “Rosie the Riveter,” 1943. ©SEPS: Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN.

4. The “Big Idea” Paintings


But occasionally Rockwell was able to escape the confining bonhomie of Pleasantville (Dave Hickey’s term) and his own desire to gratify his audience and employers. He painted four presidents: Ike, JFK, LBJ and Nixon. His stunning portrait of John F. Kennedy exemplifies the energy and promise of the 1960s, as well at Kennedy’s cool intelligence; while his Nixon portrait, which he conceded was “no Rembrandt,” probably reflects Rockwell’s distaste for the candidate whom he had observed wheedling votes from two maids in a hotel hallway. Rockwell's hankering to tackle “big ideas” — like the painting of a black man for a cover of The Saturday Evening Post — usually met with objections from his immovable editor, but World War II provided bracing challenges worthy of the illustrator’s ambition. “Rosie the Riveter” (1943) celebrates the heroism and character of American working women on the home front who helped win the war of attrition against totalitarianism. Its mixture of admiration and humor — and Michelangelo — make this an icon of democratic and feminist grit. 


“The Four Freedoms” (1942) paintings illustrating President Roosevelt's 1941 State of the Union goals (freedom of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear) were printed as Post covers. To aid the war effort they were published as posters, raising $133M in war bond sales. The most familiar of the four is “Freedom from Want,” its multigenerational-family Thanksgiving dinner exuding the small-town values for which the Greatest Generation had gone to war. Almost as familiar is “Freedom of Speech,” with its young Lincolnesque worker, standing up to voice his opinion at a town hall meeting, with his neighbors respectfully hearing him out. All of the models, it must be pointed out, were Rockwell’s neighbors.

In the 1960s, as Rockwell was entering his seventies, he started working for LOOK magazine, which afforded him more creative latitude. In 1954, the Supreme Court mandated the desegregation of public schools in its unanimous Brown vs. Board of Education decision. In 1960, Louisiana was compelled to comply by federal marshals, who escorted six-year-old Ruby Bridges to class at William Frantz Public School in New Orleans. In Rockwell’s 1963 painting. published in 1964, she is shown dressed in white, toting pencils, books and a ruler surrounded by burly men wearing armbands, none of whose faces is visible; behind them is a wall defaced by a racist epithet and a smashed tomato. Bridges was the only student at the school for a time, the white students having been kept at home in protest. The painting was exhibited in the White House during the Obama administration. 


A year later, in 1965, Rockwell painted “Southern Justice (Mississippi Murder),” a passionate denunciation of the racist atrocity of Philadelphia, Mississippi: three young civil right workers, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney, were mutilated and murdered by a racist mob sworn to secrecy on pain of death. Rockwell. who had often disclaimed his inability to paint “evil sorts of subjects,” on this occasion channeled his rage into the tragic yet heroic depiction of the secular martyrs’ last moments. Goodman stands, illuminated by car headlights, facing the mob, which is invisible but for metonymic shadows and sticks, while a wounded Chaney sags to his knees; the dead Schwerner lies at their feet.


Norman Rockwell, “The Four Freedoms: Freedom of Speech,” 1943. ©SEPS: Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN.

Goya’s nocturnal execution scene “The Third of May,” with its dramatic lighting and its angrily expressionistic paint handling, almost indecipherable in the face of one victim, is an obvious influence on this stark and nearly monochromatic image from which every trace of ingratiating humor has been banished. It is a worthy successor to Goya’s masterpiece, and superior in its strong feeling to Picasso’s “Massacre in Korea” (1951), painted a decade earlier. (Rockwell, incidentally admired Picasso.) LOOK, in an unusual decision, published the looser sketch rather than the tighter finished painting.


Norman Rockwell, “Murder in Mississippi (Southern Justice),” 1965, oil on canvas, 53 x 42”. © Norman Rockwell Family Agency. Norman Rockwell Museum Collection. All Rights Reserved.


Francisco Goya, "The Third of May 1808," oi on canvas, 106 x 137". Courtesy of the Museo del Prado, Madrid.

5. Success and Failure


If this conjunction of the current political crisis confronting American democracy and the career of Norman Rockwell seem an odd match, they share a misconception about the American experiment. Rockwell’s nostalgic vision of small-town innocents was originally useful as a sort of creation myth for our polyglot country: the promise that the melting pot might result in an open, tolerant society accessible to all. This was surely attractive to the new generation of immigrants, and perhaps also to established elites who saw self interest in the stability this implied. Today, with the browning of America, we are all too aware of the dark, violent, exploitative side of recently latent but now fully awakened white supremacy. 


We are left in need of a new sustaining myth to encompass the new realities rather than sugarcoat the electorate with the old fantasies of American exceptionalism. Late in his career, when he could, Rockwell moved beyond the sentimental but good-natured straitjacket that he had himself created decades ago. It is interesting to wonder what would have happened had he adjusted his aim higher earlier in his career, say, during the Red Scare of the 1950s.


The Marxist art critic John Berger, in “The Success and Failure of Picasso” (1993), suggested that Picasso’s late art could have benefited had the artist changed his focus from private concerns to public ones: from his own mortality and aging after a lifetime of brilliant, swaggering egocentrism to the wider world devastated by predatory capitalist ball-swinging. Berger cited Africa as a possible focus for Picasso, who owed African culture a great debt going back to his Cubist innovations. The same public-private criticism might be made of Rockwell, even though his private world verged on gentle whimsy rather than the forcible, prehensile reshaping of visual reality. 


Ultimately, however, we can’t condemn Rockwell (or Picasso) for not being too kind or gentle (or not kind and gentle enough), given his immense talents in popular storytelling — for ‘’democratic history painting,” to once more cite Dave Hickey’s phrase. Considering how viciously partisan public discourse has become, would a modern dose of “Freedom of Speech” be so bad? Can anyone alive today talk sense to the Trump mob? Rockwell, Great Communicator, thou shouldst be living at this hour.

TDC DeWittC300.jpg
bottom of page