Iconic American illustrator Norman Rockwell was born on this date in 1894. Throughout his career, Rockwell’s paintings were dismissed by the art world intelligensia as too conservative, too schmaltzy, and too white.
This observation wasn’t wrong, exactly, but it wasn’t all that astute, either. For one thing, it showed that many of Rockwell’s critics weren’t looking closely enough at his work. “Without thinking too much about it in specific terms,” the artist explained, “I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed.”
Moreover, the critique that Rockwell wasn’t on the cutting edge of America’s racial story could be leveled at almost the entire U.S. media in those days. Rockwell himself was born in New York City, migrating first to the suburbs and, by 1939, to small town Vermont.
It’s true that from his bucolic redoubt, Norman Rockwell’s work often depicted -- and in some ways idealized -- small town American life. But that’s not all he did. The national ethos he celebrated in the 1920s and 1930s helped win a world war in the 1940s. Rockwell pitched in directly, too: His “Four Freedoms” paintings based on Franklin Roosevelt’s famous declarations were made into posters that generated war bond sales.
But if the United States helped defeat racist regimes in Berlin and Tokyo bent on world domination, there was much work to be done on that front back home after World War II. Rockwell lent his artist’s brushes to that cause as well, as I’ll mention briefly in a moment.
For 47 long years, beginning in 1916, Norman Rockwell drew an astounding 323 covers for The Saturday Evening Post, the magazine Rockwell described as the “greatest show window in America.” Is it fair to say that its editors published their magazine for a white audience? Yes, it is. And when minorities did appear in Rockwell’s drawings they were usually in subservient roles. Rockwell himself was a liberal on matters of race, however, and after the end of the Second World War, he began expanding his lens.
In 1953, he drew, but did not finish, a work that would eventually become his “Golden Rule” painting. He returned to it later, and the painting graced the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on April 1, 1961, as an idealistic young president was getting established in Washington. The picture featured a crowded tableau of people from around the world of different religions and ethnicities with the simple inscription, “Do Unto Others as You Would Have Them Do Unto You.”
“I’d been reading up on comparative religion,” Rockwell explained. “The thing is that all major religions have the Golden Rule in common. Not always the same words but the same meaning.”
But the truth was that Rockwell had outgrown the Saturday Evening Post and in 1963 he left it for Look magazine, which was more in sync with his progressive views on race.
It was in a mid-January 1964 issue of Look that his most powerful paining was published. It depicted 6-year-old Ruby Bridges marching purposively to the previously all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. The little African American girl walked past racist graffiti under a headline, “The Problem We All Live With.” In Rockwell’s telling, the problem was racism itself.
In 2011, the original was displayed in the White House on a wall outside the Oval Office. President Barack Obama invited a grown-up Ruby Bridges to view it with him. There, the popularly elected leader of the United States of America told her that if it hadn’t been for her and her brave classmates in schools across the South, “I might not be here and we wouldn’t be looking at this together.”
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.