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This weekend I saw an amazing Norman Rockwell exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Rockwell was a popular and prolific artist who once said he painted life as he “wanted it to be.” I wonder if he would say the same if he were alive today. For the images he painted may have been heartwarming, but they didn’t reflect reality for all.

I always thought Rockwell’s paintings represented simpler times, times of higher moral character and deeper values. I recall (and saw again at the museum) paintings showing the young caring about and learning from their elders. Parents tucking in their children, a grandmother presenting the Thanksgiving turkey. Times of baseball, school dances and apple pie. The American way.

Yet, as I am learning more and more, the “American way” is a mirage. The stories Rockwell so creatively expressed were tainted. Born in 1894 he started designing covers for the Saturday Evening Post by 1916. More than 300 covers over four decades is impressive indeed. They created a visual history of the nation’s culture during the depression, two wars and the advent of the automobile, telephone, television and the airplane. Our experiences in small town USA and a time when folks prayed and pulled together. These images were burned in the minds of millions who bought the Post or a print or any number of reproductions over the years. These images created lasting impressions of the “ideal family” or the “ideal community.” And just what did these images tell us?

Turns out Rockwell was forbidden to paint people of color in any role other than that of servitude. One painting shows an older black male waiter standing near a traveling young white boy as he figures out the tip he will give to that man who is benevolently smiling down on the boy. Isn’t it nice that he’s such a happy, content oppressed adult who doesn’t mind that his position is lower than an adolescent white boy?

I’m not slamming on Rockwell. I blindly accepted my privileged state in this country for decades before starting to grasp reality. Still, I wonder, did Rockwell fight an internal battle about what he wanted to paint versus what he was “allowed” to paint? Or was the Post policy subtle enough so that Rockwell didn’t fully appreciate what was happening until later? Did they give him other reasons why a certain concept wouldn’t fly  that seemed legitimate or did they make it clear to him that he was to raise whites above all others?

Rockwell did, finally, begin to depict the social struggles of the civil rights era. After more than 40 years he stopped working for the Saturday Evening Post and painted “The Problem We All Live With” which surprised many who were used to his non-controversial images. This painting showed a young black girl being escorted to school with a tomato smashed against the wall behind her. I look at this image and can’t imagine the heartache involved, as a mother of that child, of that child herself. I want to do more research to see how much Rockwell painted of this more realistic portrayal of America. The exhibit didn’t show much and a quick internet search only showed a handful as well.

Perhaps Rockwell was smart in waiting so long and developing a large following of conservatives. Perhaps he built such a loyalty and trusted relationship among the American people that when he did, finally, undertake the deeper social issues he was able to draw much greater attention than he might have as a rogue artist painting from the heart without worry of a sale. I don’t know. At the very least, maybe when we look at Rockwell’s paintings now we’ll look beneath the heartwarming surface story to see between the lines and remember that it doesn’t represent America for everyone. And that the values portrayed aren’t really true until they’re true for all.

“I showed the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed.”
-Norman Rockwell