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Feb 03

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The Politics of Norman Rockwell

Norman RockwellOn this day in 1894, the great painter Norman Rockwell was born. He is best known for his many covers for The Saturday Evening Post. I never thought much about him when I was younger. But over the years, I’ve come to really appreciate his cleverness and even subversion. Rockwell was a good old fashioned New Deal Democrat. You know: the kind of person who would be called a radical today.

A great example of his political orientation was found in his Four Freedoms series. It is a representation of Franklin D Roosevelt’s State of the Union address in 1941. And the four freedoms are radical by today’s standards. They include two “of” freedoms: freedom of speech and freedom of worship. Everyone agrees with those because they’ve been around for so long. But show me a Republican who would agree with the two “from” freedoms: freedom from want and freedom from fear. Even among so called liberals in this country, there is only modest support for the idea that there might be freedoms that would require any sacrifice from the power elite.

Four Freedoms - Norman Rockwell

Rockwell created those paintings for The Saturday Evening Post. But by 1963, he left the magazine because of the constraints it was putting on his work. He wanted to cover more overt political ground. It led to some brilliant works. The most affecting is probably Murder in Mississippi — a rendering of the murder of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney. It’s a remarkable piece: half social realism and half neo-romanticism. It doesn’t look much like what people think of as his style:

Murder in Mississippi - Norman Rockwell

But he still did profound pieces that were clearly his style. One of my very favorites is, The Problem We All Live With. It renders the first day of school for Ruby Bridges at the once all-white William Frantz Elementary School. She is accompanies by four literally faceless deputy US marshals. Even today, I can’t see it without being affected by it.

The Problem We All Live With - Norman Rockwell

Happy birthday Norman Rockwell!

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4 comments

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  1. JMF

    Wow. Like many people, I’d never thought of Rockwell as a political artist. Those are great. I’d be better and more historically accurate if both the white and black man in “Mississippi” were weeping, and both were standing (although the black man would remain with more blood on his clothes.) But no doubt Rockwell was aiming at his white audience to stand up for the oppressed, a sentiment we could use more of today. (It’s almost taboo to mention oppression, unless it’s something our enemies do. Here, anyone who’s oppressed is either “whining” or “it’s their own fault,” so many liberals steer very wide of calls to outrage.)

    The relative stances in “The Problem” are perfect. The kid is smaller than the white escorts, not because they’re white, but because she’s a kid, for crying out loud — a kid who has to walk by that wall. Who, despite the escorts, is the face we see, alone. That’s powerful stuff.

    1. Frank Moraes

      Murder in Mississippi was painted just six months after the murders, so I’m not sure how much was known. But I suspect he did it that way for the composition. It’s the most Romantic (capital-R) of his work, for obvious reasons — like heroes in hell.

      The Problem really is great. Like most of his work, it is brilliantly designed. Rockwell ages very well.

  2. Pat Crawford

    Interesting article, some things I never knew of this amazing and prolific painter. I was, however, somewhat taken aback at the generalization about “no Republican” being in support of the freedoms from fear/want…personally I am independent. I have many republican friends who would be personally offended as they do not fall under this categorization….anyway, the world, like Norman’s paintings, is rarely black and white :). Thanks for the interesting article!

    1. Frank Moraes

      An exaggeration for effect? I don’t know; I would have to read the article and I don’t want to. However, I’ve been clear that people who haven’t noticed what has happened to the Republican Party don’t deserve a lot of understanding. It is, after all, a party that is focused far more on redistribution of wealth than the Democratic Party, and they want that redistribution to be from the poor to the rich.

      But I’m glad you found the article interesting.

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