FORT LAUDERDALE — There is a popular belief that the late Norman Rockwell, a legendary illustrator and storyteller, only painted whimsical images of middle-class white people in suburbs, and ignored the racial and social issues of his time.
This notion is disproven by “American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell,” a traveling exhibit created by the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, that spans the artist’s 65-year career.
While the exhibit showcases 42 of Rockwell’s original oil paintings, as well as his 323 Saturday Evening Post covers, sketches, photographs and other documents, it also highlights some of his civil rights paintings. One of them depicts a black girl’s mistreatment as she integrates a white school.
“Norman Rockwell captures a universal humanity that we intuitively understand,’’ said Irvin Lippman, curator of the Museum of Art-Fort Lauderdale, in a prepared statement. The exhibit is currently on display at the museum until Feb. 10.
“He paints real people and he shows real emotions,’’ Lipmman said. “His work is inspirational. His work is beautiful. He paints about the best within all of us.”
One of the most beloved American artists of the 20th century, Rockwell worked at the Post for 47 years, drawing images that would be reprinted as the news magazine’s cover.
Because the Post’s subscribers were largely well-to-do whites, Rockwell was constrained there to narrative paintings of the everyday lives of ordinary white people. The magazine required that black people only be seen in service positions.
Rockwell, born 1894 and raised in Manhattan, New York, acknowledged that except for a few summers in the country, his paintings were not a realistic or historical representation of his or anyone else’s life in America at that time, even though he experienced issues such as the economic hardship of the Great Depression, World War II and racism.
In his 1960 autobiography, My Adventures as an Illustrator, he wrote: “The view of life I communicate in my pictures excludes the sordid and ugly. I paint life as I would like it to be.”
Rockwell continued in his memoir: “I sometimes think we paint to fulfill ourselves and our lives, to supply the things we want and don’t have. Maybe as I grew up and found that the world wasn’t the perfectly pleasant place I had thought it to be, I unconsciously decided that, even if it wasn’t an ideal world, it should be and so painted only the ideal aspects of it.”
After leaving the Post in 1963 Rockwell diverted from his familiar themes of family, friendship and community in societal bliss, and started to illustrate current events for Look magazine.
Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, his first illustration for Look, published in January 1964, was The Problem We All Live With, based on the real-life story of Ruby Bridges, a six-year-old girl who, in 1960, became the first African-American child to attend an all-white school in New Orleans.
It was not the sort of work expected from Rockwell, who went from idealism to realism. In the painting, a little black girl dressed in white is escorted on her first day to school by four faceless U.S. Marshals, the wall behind them defaced with the N-word and the messy red gush of a tomato that someone threw at her.
Rockwell was a member of the early NAACP, long before he began this painting, and even wrote a $1,000 check to the movement in the 1950s, according to Laurie Norton Moffatt, director and CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum.
“He was very socially concerned, but he wasn’t able to paint that in the Post because of editorial policies,” Moffatt said. “I think it was very liberating for him as well to be able to paint on a wider spectrum of subjects, and was particularly able to create a bridge for people to see the unfairness, the anger, the meanness, and the injustices that were happening to our children all over the United States.”
Freshly liberated, Rockwell tried to fix the discrepancies in his previous works at the Post by demonstrating the dark side of American life that he had long overlooked. For this, he received many harsh criticisms.
Rockwell continued to paint works such as Murder in Mississippi (1965), a black-and-white painting of the 1964 brutal murders of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney.
Based on Hector Rondon’s “Aid from the Padre,” a 1963 Pulitzer-winning photograph of Father Manuel Padillo holding a wounded soldier during a revolt against the Venezuelan government, the piece is dismal, the only color being Chaney’s blood. Rockwell used his son, Jarvis, to pose as Michael Schwerner and hold Oliver McCary, who posed as James Chaney, to stage numerous photographs that initiated the masterpiece.
The section of the Fort Lauderdale museum dedicated to the painting includes these and other photographs, digital prints, preliminary sketches, handwritten and typed notes of the event and victims, and a 1964 New York Times article of the murders; suggesting that Rockwell planned on doing the piece long before he actually started, according to the museum’s curators.
Rockwell continued to paint other newsworthy events until his death in 1978 at age 84.
“All of Rockwell’s works are about individuals, and each of those individuals is imbued by Rockwell with a deep sense of humanity and dignity,” Lippman said. “In each work, he tells a story. He’s really a genius at his craft.”
Photo: “The Problem We All Live With,” a painting by Norman Rockwell, depicts a 6-year-old girl who integrated an all-white school in New Orleans in 1960.
IF YOU GO
What: American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell exhibition
When: Now through Feb. 7, 2010.
Where: Museum of Art-Fort Lauderdale, 1 East Las Olas Boulevard, Fort Lauderdale.
Cost: Individual tickets are $15 for adults, $12.50 for seniors 65 and over, and $8 for students ages 6 to 17. Group rates are available for groups of 10 or more by calling 954-462-0222.
Contact: To learn more, call 954-525-5500 or visit www.moafl.org.