Feb 1, 2016

Norman Rockwell in the age of the Civil Rights Movement

Norman Rockwell Museum

Facing Hard Realities - Norman Rockwell’s hope for a compassionate society 

Evolving view of the world
On July 14, 1964, "The New York Times" ran a story titled, “A 2nd Body is Found in the Mississippi.” Norman Rockwell tore this page from his newspaper and saved it. The story of a racial killing in southwest Mississippi and the arson of two Negro churches mentioned another unsolved case, that of three civil rights workers missing since June 21st. The brief reference caught Rockwell’s attention and laid the foundation for one of his most stirring works. A few months earlier, "Look" ran Rockwell’s powerful message on school desegregation, "The Problem We All Live With." Rockwell received many letters criticizing his choice of subject, but irate opinions didn’t silence him.  In March 1965, Rockwell began "Murder in Mississippi," illustrating the June 21st slaying of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, in Philadelphia, Mississippi. 
In an interview later in his life, Rockwell recalled having been directed to paint out a black person out of a group picture because "Saturday Evening Post" policy at that time allowed showing black people only in service industry jobs. Having left the "Post" in 1963, Rockwell was free from such restraints and seemed eager to correct prejudices inadvertently reflected in previous work. "The Problem We All Live With," "Murder in Mississippi," and "New Kids in the Neighborhood" ushered in that new focus.  
Humor and pathos—traits that made Rockwell’s "Post" covers successful—were not needed to describe life in 1960s America. Textures and colors used to weave his lighthearted yarns were replaced by a pared-down, reportorial style appropriate for magazine editorials.  "Blood Brothers," showing the stark realism of two dead men their blood mingling, may have been too controversial for "Look." The commission went unpublished.   Among the powerful paintings Rockwell produced in the 1960s, "The Problem We All Live With" stands as one of the most aggressively gentle assertions on moral decency, "Murder in Mississippi" as his most courageous, and "New Kids in the Neighborhood" was his most optimistic. As Rockwell observers, we evolve into a more compassionate culture, not only tolerating the artist’s departure from gently depicting our foibles but embracing his honest confrontations of some of the hard realities of our society. Who but someone who spent sixty-four years winning our hearts by reminding us of who we are could better advise us on treating others as we would like to be treated.
The Problem We All Live With
Illustration for “Look,” January 14, 1964.  Rockwell’s first assignment for "Look" magazine was an illustration of a six-year-old African-American schoolgirl being escorted by four U.S. marshals to her first day at an all-white school in New Orleans.  Ordered to proceed with school desegregation after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Louisiana lagged behind until pressure from Federal Judge Skelly Wright forced the school board to begin desegregation on November 14, 1960.   Letters to the editor were a mix of praise and criticism. One Florida reader wrote, “Rockwell’s picture is worth a thousand words … I am saving this issue for my children with the hope that by the time they become old enough to comprehend its meaning, the subject matter will have become history.” Other readers objected to Rockwell’s image. A man from Texas wrote “Just where does Norman Rockwell live? Just where does your editor live? Probably both of these men live in all-white, highly expensive highly exclusive neighborhoods. Oh what hypocrites all of you are!” The most shocking letter came from a man in New Orleans who called Rockwell’s work, “just some more vicious lying propaganda being used for the crime of racial integration by such black journals as 'Look,' 'Life,' etc.” But irate opinions did not stop Rockwell from pursuing his course.  

This is a photograph of an initial oil on canvas color study done by Norman Rockwell. In this study, we see the little girl (Ruby Bridges) toward the right side of the painting. Rockwell would later move the girl to the left side of the page. The reason the girl is not in the center of the page is because the painting would appear in the magazine as a two-page spread. The center of the image would be relegated to the "gutter" where the two pages are seamed together.

In this study, we see the little girl (Ruby Bridges) toward the left side of the painting. In an earlier color study, Rockwell had the little girl on the right side of the page. Rockwell moved her there to illustrate the girl's eagerness to go to school. The reason the girl is not in the center of the page is because the painting would appear in the magazine as a two-page spread. The center of the image would be relegated to the "gutter" where the two pages are seamed together.

Subject Model: Lynda Gunn with her father.

Subject Model: Lynda Gunn

Subject Model: Anita Gunn

Norman Rockwell would often demonstrate to his models how he would like them to pose. In this photograph, Rockwell gets into character demonstrating the stride of a U.S. Marshal for his painting "The Problem We All Live With."

Murder in Mississippi (Southern Justice)
Illustration for “Look,” June 29, 1965. In the beginning of 1965, Rockwell began work on an illustration for "Look" about the June 21, 1964 murders of three young civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Michael Schwerner and his chief aide, James Chaney, were in Philadelphia to assist with training summer volunteers, one of whom was Andrew Goodman. Schwerner had been targeted by the Klan for his organization of a black boycott of white-owned businesses and for his attempts to register blacks in Meriden. Hearing of a Klan attack against blacks and of arson at Mount Zion Church, the three men drove to the site. On their return to the Meriden office of Congress On Racial Equality (CORE), they were taken into custody by Deputy Sheriff Price, by some accounts for speeding and by others for supposedly setting the fire. After releasing them later that night, Price tailed them. Once outside of town, Klansmen intercepted them and hustled them into Price's car. They were driven to a remote location and shot point blank. Their bodies were then taken to a farm of one of the Klansmen, dumped into a dam site, and covered by tons of dirt pushed over them by tractor. Rockwell conceived "Murder in Mississippi" as a horizontal composition to run across two pages. The young men would be pictured on the left page and Philadelphia Deputy Price and the posse of Klansmen wielding sticks (we later learned all were armed with rifles and shotguns) on the right. His next idea was to do two separate, vertical pictures-the first showing the civil rights workers and the second showing the Mount Zion Church. Rockwell hired local architect Tom Arienti to draft a church steeple, but later decided against including the church.

Deputy Price and his stick-wielding posse were removed and represented only by menacing shadows in this quick color sketch, the left half of the original painting. Rockwell received the go-ahead to proceed with his final painting based on this sketch but "Look" art director Allen Hurlburt, after receiving the final, chose to publish the sketch.

This is a photograph of a color study initially done by Norman Rockwell. It shows that Rockwell initially tried painting a more "complete" painting by including Deputy Price and his associates in the image.

This photograph is of a charcoal sketch Rockwell made for the painting "Murder in Mississippi (Southern Justice)." In the top right corner, you can see a newspaper clipping showing the portraits of the three murdered men. Rockwell used these portraits to give some degree of authenticity to his image but never explicitly tried for exact replication of their visage.

Norman Rockwell - Reference photo of blood on Schwerner and Chaney for "Murder in Mississippi".

Subject Model: Jarvis Rockwell III (standing)

New Kids in the Neighborhood (Negro in the Suburb)   
Illustration for “Look,” May 16, 1967.  At 73, Rockwell had lost the energy to develop his work in the painstaking way of the previous half-century. Now he would often omit the intermediary step of preparing a detailed charcoal drawing before proceeding to paint in oil. In addition, his color perception was diminishing due to cataracts. Still, his work continued to reach an appreciative audience. In his illustration of suburban integration in Chicago’s Park Forest community, Rockwell was secure in expressing his philosophy of tolerance. We can see the children will soon be playing with each other, but the face peering from behind a window curtain makes us wonder how the adults will fare.Painting for "Look" story illustration “Negro in the Suburbs” by Jack Star, May 16, 1967Norman Rockwell Art Collection Trust

Subject Model: Wray Gunn Jr.

Reference Photo for New Kids in the Neighborhood (Negro in the Suburb)

Credits: Story

This special exhibition for Google Cultural Institute was produced by the Norman Rockwell Museum with permission from the Norman Rockwell Family Agency.

For more information, visit: www.nrm.org

Paintings, photographs, and archival documents were sourced from the Norman Rockwell Museum Collection in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Special thanks go to the following Norman Rockwell Museum staff:
Laurie Norton Moffatt - Director/CEO
Stephanie Plunkett - Chief Curator/Deputy Director
Margit Hotchkiss - Deputy Director for Audience and Business Development
Rich Bradway - Director of Digital Learning and Engagement
Tom Daly - Curator of Education
Venus Van Ness - Archivist
Barbara Rundback - Digital Experience Coordinator
Thomas Mesquita - Registrar
Jeremy Clowe - Manager of Media Services

© 2016 Norman Rockwell Family Agency and Norman Rockwell Museum. All Rights Reserved.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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