STOCKBRIDGE, Mass. — Day-to-day life in America has changed so much over the past year; everything from what we wear to where we go has been altered in one way or another.
Visiting the Norman Rockwell Museum with this new landscape in mind gives one a deeper appreciation for the way the illustrator captured changes in American daily life throughout the 1900s.
On view on the lower level of the museum is his entire collection of The Saturday Evening Post covers, which range from 1916 through 1963. During the Great Depression, Rockwell was asked to paint upbeat scenes, ones that transported readers away from the world around them. In one 1930 cover, titled “The Yarn Spinner,” a young sailor, with a parrot on his arm and pipe in hand is leaning toward a woman seated next to him, who is holding a book and looking out at the viewer, with a look that says she’s just about done listening to the sailor spin his tale. The masts of several ships are seen in the background and the composition is adventurous with a bit of the humor that Rockwell is so well known for.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the artist turned toward family life, painting covers like “Going and Coming,” portraying the excitement and exhaustion of family trips. In one 1952 painting, titled “Day in the Life of a Girl,” he used 22 vignettes to portray an expressive girl going about her day; waking up, riding a bike, swimming, combing her hair, arguing with a boy, etc.
However, Rockwell didn’t necessarily shy away from illustrating national issues. In 1943, he painted a larger-than-life version of Rosie the Riveter, dressed in blue jean overalls, goggles atop her head and a sandwich in hand, arm bent to show off hard-earned muscle. That same year he painted the “Four Freedoms” series, which is also on display at the museum. These iconic pieces — “Freedom of Speech,” “Freedom of Worship,” “Freedom from Want” and “Freedom from Fear” — were inspired by a speech from President Franklin D. Roosevelt and helped to capture that which Americans considered worth fighting for.
Some of those are reimagined in a more modern context by Pops Peterson, in an adjacent exhibit called “Rockwell Revisited.” The Berkshire-based artist created his own version of “Freedom from Fear,” featuring two Black parents tucking their children into bed, the father holding a newspaper that reads “I Can’t Breathe!” The digital print was created in 2015, though it seems just as relevant six years later.
Close by is “The Problem Persists, 1964-2014,” which is a modern interpretation of Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With.” The latter work depicted Ruby Bridges’ historic walk to school in New Orleans, with Bridges dressed in white, carrying her school books, surrounded by four U.S. marshals. Peterson’s version was inspired by the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police. Bridges is seen walking in the foreground and behind her is a demolished building, the word “Beauty” is seen beside the ruble and there’s a police car in the background of it all.
In another room, next door to Peterson’s works, the museum delves deeper into Rockwell’s “Murder in Mississippi (Southern Justice),” in which he illustrated the slaying of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, who were civil rights workers. Through studies and text, the exhibit reveals his intense process, which included modeling with a shirt stained with human blood, made to represent the shirt Schwerner was wearing when he was killed. A color study of the painting was published in 1965 in Look and several years later, Rockwell said that by the time he finished the final painting “all the anger that was in the sketch had gone out of it.” More than 50 years later, the piece, unfortunately, remains relevant.
Viewing Rockwell’s work makes one wonder what we might have painted if he were alive today, what aspects of pandemic daily life he would portray, or how he might continue to bring issues of racial inequality to light. Peterson’s series, which will be on view through May, presents an intriguing answer to that question and speaks to the importance of representational artwork.
Whether one is in the mood for Rockwell’s more humorous and imaginative works, or for works that delve deeper into American life, or for even a stroll through the picturesque grounds, it’s well worth the trip to the Norman Rockwell Museum.
Also on view:
Contemporary illustrators created a digital poster campaign to inspire citizens to vote.
The exhibit is part of “The Unity Project,” an art and civics program started by the museum and contemporary illustrators and is inspired by Rockwell’s Four Freedoms and civil rights era images. It aims to help people consider the power that published imagery plays in creating cultural narratives.
“Pat Oliphant: Editorial Cartoons from the Nixon and Clinton Eras” — The exhibit spans one room and includes not only Oliphant’s cartoons but a bronze sculpture of President George H. W. Bush.
Tickets to the Norman Rockwell Museum are timed and should be purchased in advance. For more information visit nrm.org.