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Norman Rockwell and Race: Complicating Rockwell’s Legacy

If you were to ask someone today what they think of when they hear “Norman Rockwell”, their answer will most likely involve simplicity, sentimentality, and “traditional” American values. They might even mention his highly famous “Thanksgiving picture” (more formally known as “Freedom from Want”), one of his most well-known paintings and a piece that effectively illustrates the nostalgic sentimentality for which Rockwell is best remembered.

Illustration of a family of ten seated around a table; at the head is depicted the matriarch delivering a plated Thanksgiving turkey to the patriarch, who is standing.
 Freedom from Want, published in 1943, is an example of the kind of work for which Norman Rockwell is best known.

However, it’s unlikely that many people would mention Rockwell’s equally seminal painting, “The Problem We All Live With”, in which a 6-year-old Ruby Bridges and a team of U.S. Marshals walk past walls covered in thrown vegetables and racial slurs on their way to her first day of classes at an integrated school.

Race, and specifically issues of racial discrimination and violence, are not commonly associated with our contemporary understanding of what is “Rockwellian”, but perhaps they should be.

As one of the best-known illustrators of the 20th century, Norman Rockwell has come to occupy a very specific space within modern America’s collective memory. While Rockwell’s name is most-often evoked as a symbol of an idealized, conservative, white American past, looking at Rockwell’s actual career reveals a more complicated truth. The evolution of Rockwell’s depictions of race over the course his career demonstrates not only changes within his own personal ideology, but changes within American culture itself.

In 1916, Rockwell started working as a cover illustrator for The Saturday Evening Post, a position that he held for nearly 50 years. During his time with the Post, Rockwell became famous for his sentimental portraits of American life, and his covers depicted a simpler, more wholesome version of America. However, it is important to note who was missing from these illustrations. Due to the rules of the Post, Rockwell’s America was almost exclusively white, and minorities were only represented if they were in servile positions. While the Post seemed to relax their rules a bit by the 1960s, publishing Rockwell’s multi-ethnic “Do Unto Others” cover in 1961, their pace of change was not quick enough. In 1963, Rockwell traded his position at the Post for one at Look magazine, a publication that was more comfortable discussing and illustrating the racial realities of the time.

Typical Post covers illustrated by Norman Rockwell over the years:

Cover art from The Saturday Evening Post's July 13, 1935, issue. Art depicts a heterosexual couple and dog as passengers in a motor vehicle; the woman and dog are leaning forward in enjoyment while the man is pressed into the seat-back clutching his jacket and hat.
Cover art from The Saturday Evening Post's March 17, 1936, issue. Art depicts a teacher standing with a blackboard behind her where the class of young students also shown in the image have written happy birthday sentiments for the teacher.
Cover art from The Saturday Evening Post's March 21, 1942, issue. Image shows a young boy seated in front of a lacy makeup dresser with mirror; the boy is cheekily reading through a magazine he has pulled from an open drawer.

One of the few images of an African-American by Rockwell while he was working at the Post. This cover demonstrates the “servile position” requirement of representations of minorities:

Cover art from The Saturday Evening Post's December 1, 1946 (?), issue. Image depicts a young man seated at a table in a cafe reading through a menu while an African-American waiter stands by.

Rare illustration of ethnic and racial minorities in non-servile positions on cover of Post, April 1 1961:

Cover art from the April 1, 1961, issue of The Saturday Evening Post depicting rare Norman Rockewell illustrations of ethnic and racial minorities in non-servile positions.

It is clear that Rockwell was deeply affected by the racial violence of the day, and it was his move to Look magazine that finally allowed him to publish artwork that responded to these racial realities. His most famous work for Look magazine was also one of his first, and was published in 1964, a year after he started working at the magazine. “The Problem We All Live With” – a painting so powerful that President Obama requested it for the White House in 2011 – effectively illustrates both the progress of, and resistance to, the Civil Rights Movement, and serves as a clear departure from Rockwell’s previous depictions of race.

Photo of "The Problem We All Live With" painting depicting young Ruby Bridge walking to school between four white men guarding her on the path.
The Problem We All Live With was painted in response to the violent reaction to Ruby Bridge’s integration of her New Orleans elementary school in 1960.

Look continued to encourage Rockwell’s exploration of racial issues, and over the next four years, Rockwell produced two more illustrations that tackled racial tension and violence head-on. “Southern Justice”, published in 1965, was painted in response to the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi a year prior, and is one of Rockwell’s darkest and most striking pieces. “New Kids in the Neighborhood”, published in 1967, uses black and white children to highlight the tensions of housing integration. The painting is a visual representation of holding one’s breath  – tense yet cautiously hopeful – and accurately captures the competing attitudes of the day. 

“Southern Justice”, published in 1965, was painted in response to the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi a year prior. The image depicts three figures, two white men and one Black man; one white man is fallen, the second white man is standing, and the Black man with a bloodied hand and sleeve is clutching at the standing man. Also depicted are shadows of an encroaching group coming into frame.
Southern Justice, also known as Murder in Mississippi
“New Kids in the Neighborhood,” published in 1967, uses Black and white children to highlight the tensions of housing integration. The image depicts two Black children (a boy and a girl with a baseball glove and fluffy, white cat respectively) standing in front of a moving truck with furniture coming off of it while a group of three white children (two boys, both with baseball gloves, one in a baseball uniform; one girl with pigtails) and a dog approach them.
New Kids in the Neighborhood

With a career than spanned nearly six decades, Norman Rockwell was perfectly situated to witness  perhaps the most rapidly changing era in American history. Rockwell’s changing depictions of race throughout his career directly mirror the larger cultural shifts that were happening at the time. Therefore, instead of reducing Rockwell to just one period of his career, it would be more accurate to view Rockwell as a symbol of 20th century American racial progress.

All Saturday Evening Post covers are from the Walt Reed Illustration Archive. To see more of Rockwell’s work with the Saturday Evening Post, schedule an appointment with the Douglas B. Dowd Modern Graphic History Library.

Image Sources

About the Author

Abisola Jegede is currently an undergraduate at Washington University, pursuing a degree in American Culture Studies with a concentration in the Construction of Race and Ethnicity in American Life. Her anticipated graduation date is December 2016.