by David King
Thirty-five years after his death, Norman Rockwell’s legacy is defined by the scenes of wholesome Americana he illustrated for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, epitomized by the iconic Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving. (It’s actually called Freedom from Want and was just one of four illustrations Rockwell did as a part of his Four Freedoms series.) Often overlooked are the more political illustrations Rockwell did later in his career.
In 1964, for example, after leaving the Post he painted The Problem We All Live With, depicting six-year-old Ruby Bridges, the first African-American girl to attend an all-white school in New Orleans. (The painting is part of the permanent collection at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA.) The painting is about as removed from the smiling all-white innocence of Freedom from Want as you can get. Because of threats of violence, Bridges was escorted by four US marshals; Rockwell frames the painting so that the marshals' heads are cropped at their shoulders, on the wall behind her the N-word is clearly visible, as is a smashed tomato thrown at her by the white mob. The mob itself is not visible. The viewer is made to look at the scene from their point of view. There is not a trace of nostalgia.
This dissonance is the subject of author Jane Allen Petrick's new book Hidden in Plain Sight: The Other People in Norman Rockwell's America, which documents the stories of the Asian, African, and Native Americans who modeled for Rockwell as early as 1936. Petrick will host a forum discussing ethnic diversity in Rockwell’s work on June 14 at the Woodstock Library at 5pm that will include a reading from the book Kirkus Reviews named one of the best of 2013. She has written several other books on topics such as biography and workplace issues. (She has previously written on Rockwell and diversity for Chronogram.)