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Arts & Culture

Norman Rockwell And Civil Rights

Rockwell, `The Problem We All Live With,` 1963, oil on canvas, 36 x 58in., Illustration for Look, Jan. 14, 1964
Norman Rockwell Museum Collection, NRM. 1975.1, Licensed by Norman Rockwell Licensing, Niles, Ill.

American Chronicles – The Art of Norman Rockwell is currently on display at the North Carolina Museum of Art.  It has traveled the country since last Spring.  The exhibit includes some 40 original oil paintings – chronicling six decades of Rockwell’s work – and a complete set of more than 300 Saturday Evening Post covers.  Rockwell was meticulous in creating scenes of American life – whimsical and idyllic.  During the latter part of his life – he took his work out of New England and captured what was transforming the south – the Civil Rights movement.

Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post magazine covers were as much a part of Americana as apple pie.

But not all of his work was welcomed on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. The general public probably didn’t know, Rockwell was NOT allowed to present quote – “colored people” in his paintings featured on the magazine’s cover – unless they were servants:

"Rockwell likes to push the edge a little bit."

John Coffey is curator of American and Modern art at the North Carolina Museum of Art. In the 1960s – Rockwell left the Saturday Evening Post and worked with other magazines – particularly Look Magazine. It was more progressive and gave him a lot more freedom to explore. John Coffey:

"Is to very consciously abandon this communal, sort of New England world that he had painted and mythologized for the better part of 40 years and started to produce images that people even now can’t believe that Norman Rockwell painted."

"Well, this is “The Problem We All Live With” from1963 – I think this is a very good example of what John was talking about…this is a stunning image."

Kenneth Zagacki is referring to one of Rockwell’s most celebrated pieces of work. “The Problem We All Live With” is Rockwell’s interpretation of a little African American girl named Ruby Bridges – being accompanied by U-S Marshals to a newly desegregated school in New Orleans.

Zagacki heads the Department of Communication at NC State and helped moderate a special evening at the art museum – taking a closer look at Rockwell’s work during the Civil Rights movement. He says Rockwell’s Civil Rights paintings function in three ways:

"One, they overcome established caricatures or stereotypes particularly of African Americans. Secondly they depict what we call the particularity of individuals who are caught up in these pivotal historic moments. Thirdly, related to the second, Rockwell reveals to us the cost, if you will, associated with having democracy or concepts we associate with American democracy – actually enacted in the real world."

Marjorie Diggs Freeman of Durham stared at “The Problem We All Live With” and bought a postcard:

"I wanted to buy a print of this, of course they didn’t have it downstairs and they told me how I could get it.  Because this is the one that has always fascinated me. I don’t know if I would say that of all his work, I like this one best – this is the one that has always stood out in my mind."

In 1965 – Rockwell published his painting “Murder in Mississippi” about the death of three Civil Rights workers. And in 1967, “New Kids in the Neighborhood,” depicting a black family’s more into a white community.

The Rockwell exhibit has been extremely successful for the art museum. The number of visitors is comparable to the 2004-2005 “Matisse, Picasso and the School of Paris” exhibit – which topped 100-thousand.

Peter Gunn attended the Rockwell Civil Rights lecture. He lives in the Triangle but grew up near Rockwell’s home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.  Gunn’s family was one of only a handful of African American families living there. And yes – he got to sit for Rockwell:

"I met Norman Rockwell when I was probably about 6-7 years old. Me and my older brother, my second to oldest brother, we did a photo shoot for him for a Boy Scout Calendar.  I remember posing and talking to him.  The biggest thrill was getting a check for $25."

Gunn remembers Rockwell was kind and showed all his subjects respect - no matter their race or creed.

Rockwell’s “American Chronicles” will be at the North Carolina Museum of Art through the end of January.

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