Norman Rockwell is often thought of as a genteel, safe artist – the laureate of America’s cosy hinterlands who painted a lovingly idealistic vision of the US, as seen in works such as Freedom from Want (1943) and Saying Grace (1951) – which is up for auction at Sotheby’s in early October with an estimate of $20m.
He is still seen as the great chronicler of that nation’s post-war days of plenty, often quoted as saying, “I paint life as I would like it to be”.
This is certainly the case with his earlier works, however his later paintings, those completed after he left the Sunday Post, indicate a sense of disenfranchisement with America – and a move towards a warts and all depiction of the issues that lie at the root of the national psyche.
In 2011, following his successful re-election as President of the United States, Barack Obama hung Rockwell’s 1963 painting The Problem We All Live With on the walls of the White House. The painting shows a young African-American girl, named Ruby Bridges, being escorted to her new, previously all-white elementary school by US Marshalls in 1960.
On the wall behind her we can clearly make out racial slurs and the stain of a tomato. Rockwell places us squarely in the position of the mob – it is clear that his intention is to make us take stock of the very real horror of this situation.
Other paintings such as Murder in Mississippi (1964), which deals with the murder of civil rights activists in the South, show a nation that was waking up from its dreamy post-war slumber and moving into a new era that would bring fresh challenges – Vietnam, the civil rights movement and the radical overthrow of the established order that the 60s and 70s brought in.
Rockwell changed along with the US, and although there is still in those early paintings something nebulous, a warmth born of the adoration of his public, it is possible that those later, darker paintings reflect more truthfully the America that he knew and loved.