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  • Griffin Flannery

Activism in Expressionism: The Accomplishments of Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell, artist and illustrator, is infamous within modern culture for his expressionism artwork depicting the wonders of the “American Scene”. He summarized American qualities and became quintessential in the design and manufacturing of illustrated media during the early and mid-20th century. However, after the conclusion of major events, such as World War II, Rockwell became disappointed in the United States for failing to uphold the values they defended when battling against Nazi and other enemy forces during this period.

He exposed the flaws behind the American dream– making it apparent that this way of life was designed to exclude groups classified as “second-class citizens”.

During Roosevelt's presidency, Rockwell took it upon himself to design and create a series of four paintings depicting the freedoms promised during Roosevelt’s term (which were also the freedoms defended by the United States as they actively participated in World War II). In 1943, Rockwell beautifully depicted The Freedom of Speech, The Freedom of Religion, The Freedom From Want, and The Freedom From Fear and the U.S Department of the Treasury was so greatly influenced by these pieces, that they launched the selling war bonds and stamps using Rockwell’s visions as propaganda. Rockwell became crucial in emphasizing the meaning of American identity as U.S soldiers were defending their way of life on the front-line.

After the defeat of the Axis Powers, America basked in its glorious victory. However, with its occupation in Europe, the U.S had been simply ignoring the issues that plagued their home soil. Numerous promises of freedom and liberty for all and Rockwell, like many others, saw through this fallacy— the freedoms that were so beautifully illustrated by Rockwell were but dreams for other people. Norman Rockwell consequentially abandoned The Saturday Evening Post in 1963, who greatly restricted his depiction of African American subjects within his artwork. Rockwell took a position with Look Magazine, where he would create numerous artworks that took part in movements towards racial equality in the United States.

In 1964, Look published its first Rockwell illustration entitled, The Problem We All Live With. His assignment illustrated a young African American girl walking to school with the escort of three U.S Marshals. Following desegregation, as a consequence of Brown v. Board of Education, black children experienced their first day in a formally all-white school in New Orleans. Attempts of desegregation were opposed by the city and made it obligatory for black children, such as the girl depicted, to require the protection of U.S officials. Compositionally itself, Rockwell made excellent technical choices that illustrated the power behind Civil Rights activists. Focus is drawn to the black girl, as the image is framed so the faces of the white U.S Marshals are excluded from the painting. Optimistically, she continues her walk to school as she chooses to ignore the various racial slurs inscribed on the walls around her. The title itself, The Problem We All Live With, is a captivating convention that calls to all Americans alike, no matter their origins. For African Americans, the problem they live with is being oppressed in a white-dominated society, but for whites the problem is they continue to let it happen in the nation that promotes liberty and justice for all.

Furthermore, in 1967, Rockwell published another piece titled New Kids in the Neighborhood as yet another representation dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement. The painting depicts two black children, as their family moves into a suburban community in Chicago. They are greeted by three white children who intriguingly stand at the opposite end of the sidewalk. It is apparent that both groups of children are initially apprehensive, but withhold a sense of curiosity that is indicative of children. Both the African American and white boy hold a baseball glove which demonstrates how both children, despite their racial differences, have continuities between them. The illustration invokes a sense of whimsy, for the children do not display the same animosity towards one another, which had become characteristic during this period. Rockwell demonstrates racism as learned behaviors by using the portrayals of childhood innocence.

Norman Rockwell, as previously mentioned, is infamous in depicting life in what was considered to be “a country founded for the people, by the people”. For decades, he maintained an impressive quantity of viewership, for his colorful and expressive portraits of Americana themes were a wonder that brought unity and pride to many U.S citizens. Rockwell had the power to rewrite the meaning of the American Dream, and he did just that– exposing the blatant racial injustices woven into the American government and criticizing the hypocrisies of officials who promised a “land of the free”. He has stumbled upon a new purpose: illustrating the history of an ever-changing nation who fought, and will continue to fight, for a system that protects the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of all its citizens.


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