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Norman Rockwell's America

Updated: Mar 23, 2020

The ideals of American life has perhaps come to life in no better presentation than from the brush of Norman Rockwell, illustrator artist who created covers for The Saturday Evening Post.

Roadblock, The Saturday Evening Post, 1949

Looking At The American Dream

Norman Rockwell held the esteemed post as cover artist for nearly fifty years beginning in 1916. He produced iconic images of Americana. Beautiful illustrations of the America we want to believe in with ethics of decency, kindness, honor, hard work, service, love, innocence, faith and hallmark American family values and traditions. We see before us delivery on the American Dream. But, there was a dark side to the righteous stance of this publication's self-description as the messenger of goodness. In 1971, during an interview with writer Richard Reeves, Norman Rockwell explained that at the Post there was an unwritten rule laid down: “George Horace Lorimer, who was a very liberal man, told me never to show colored people except as servants.” It was not the bias of the artist but the institution of racism that forbid the happy story of Black Americans participating in the Dream. The Post did not want to offend their good white readers.

Black Americans did find their way onto Rockwell’s covers in minor servile roles. Some subjects did not even face the viewer and were possibly overlooked except by the most ardent observer. The first cover was in 1934, in the illustration Thataway depicting a young black boy pointing in the direction of a thrown rider’s horse. The Full Treatment cover appeared in 1940. It depicted a wealthy white man being attended to by a barber, manicurist, and a black shoe shine boy on his knees, back facing viewers. The Homecoming, a 1945 cover depicted a returning military veteran arriving home to a scene of welcoming family and neighbors also included a Black worker. The cover Boy in Dining Car in 1946 shows a youth in a rail car diner studying the menu with purse in hand, trying to determine the proper payment and tip for the Black waiter. Roadblock, shows a moving van that is blocked by a small dog in an urban alley scene with a variety of onlookers, including some black children that appeared in 1949.

Rockwell found opportunities in other publications from the mid-1920s through mid-1940s to illustrate Blacks in more dignified presentations. His The Banjo Player was created for a Pratt & Lambert advertisement that appeared inside The Saturday Evening Post in 1926.

Perhaps the earliest examples of Rockwell's personal respect for Black America in his art is found in the illustration Love Ouanga that appeared in American Magazine in 1936. He painted a beautiful, stylishly-dressed young Black woman in a church scene with working class Blacks in coarse, country dress looking at her. It was commissioned for the magazine to compliment Kenneth Perkin's story by the same name.

Norman Rockwell was clearly a progressive thinker even while creating covers for the Post. It comes as no surprise that the same man who endorsed American values and ideals in the Post was rooted in a belief that justice and equal rights belonged to all Americans. It was after his employment with the Post ended that Rockwell was able to express his Homeland positions regarding civil rights in America. His painting, The Problem We All Live With was used in Look magazine in January, 1964. This depicted the child Ruby Bridges being escorted to school by US Marshals with KKK displayed on the wall. I believe that Rockwell would have felt honored knowing that in 2011, this painting would be displayed in the White House for America’s first Black President, Barack Obama alongside 56 year old Ruby Bridges as their special guest at the viewing.

Final Thoughts

A coming to terms is my best interpretation of Rockwell’s painting The New Kids in the Neighborhood (1967) depicting Black and white children confronting each other with anticipation and hope for a better America. I noted in this illustration that servitude is provided by a white furniture delivery worker who was hired by the Black American family.

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