NON-WHITE AMERICA IN NORMAN ROCKWELL’S PAINTINGS – HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT, JANE ALLEN PETRICK

NormanRockwell Little RockJane Allen Petrick has written a wonderful book about Norman Rockwell, the artist and his work. It focuses on the “invisible people” in his painting, the non-white children and adults who are his legacy.

For many readers, this book will be an eye-opener — although anyone who visits the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts or takes a serious look at Rockwell’s body of work can see Norman Rockwell never portrayed a purely white America. This perception of Rockwell’s work is a gross injustice to a man for whom civil rights was a personal crusade.

This country’s non-white population were in Rockwell’s paintings even when he had to sneak them in by a side door,figuratively speaking. Black people, Native Americans and others are anything but missing. Rockwell was passionate about civil rights and integration. It was his life’s cause, near and dear to his heart. Yet somehow, the non-white peoples in his pictures have been overlooked, become invisible via selective vision. They remain unseen because white America does not want to see them, instead choosing to focus on a highly limited vision which fits their prejudices or preconceptions.

Ms. Pettrick tells the story of Rockwell’s journey, his battle to be allowed to paint his America. It is also the story of the children and adults who modeled for him. She sought out these people, talked to them. Heard and recorded their first-hand experiences with the artist.

This is a fascinating story. I loved it from first word to last. HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT is available on Kindle for just $3.49. It’s also available as a paperback.

InPlainSight

From the Author

Whether we love his work or hate it, most of us think of Norman Rockwell as the poster child for an all-white America. I know I did. That is until the uncanny journey I share with you in this book began to unfold.  Then I discovered a surprisingly different truth: Norman Rockwell was into multiculturalism long before the word was even invented.

Working from live models, the famous illustrator was slipping people of color (the term I use for the multi-ethnic group of Chinese and Lebanese, Navajos and African-Americans the artist portrayed) into his illustrations of America from the earliest days of his career. Those people of color are still in those illustrations. They never disappeared. But the reason we don’t know about them is because, up until now, they seem to have been routinely overlooked.

For example, in her book, “Norman Rockwell’s People,” Susan E. Meyer catalogues by name over one hundred and twenty Norman Rockwell models, including two dogs, Bozo and Spot. But not one model of color is named in the book.

Another case in point? “America, Illustrated,” an article written for The New York Times by Deborah Solomon, art critic and journalist In honor of (an) upcoming Independence Day, the entire July 1, 2010 edition of the paper was dedicated to “all things American.”

“America, Illustrated” pointed out that Norman Rockwell’s work was experiencing a resurgence among collectors and museum-goers. Why? Because the illustrator’s vision of America personified “all things American.” Rockwell’s work, according to the article, provided “harmony and freckles for tough times.” As Solomon put it, Norman Rockwell’s America symbolized “America before the fall.” This America was, apparently, all sweetness and light. Solomon simply asserts: “It is true that his (Rockwell’s) work does not acknowledge social hardships or injustice.”

The America illustrated by Norman Rockwell also, apparently, was all white. Seven full-color reproductions of Rockwell’s work augment the multi-page Times’ article. The featured illustration is “Spirit of America” (1929), a 9″ x 6″ blow-up of one of the artist’s more “Dudley Doright”-looking Boy Scouts. None of the illustrations chosen includes a person of color.

This is puzzling. As an art critic, Solomon surely was aware of Norman Rockwell’s civil rights paintings. The most famous of these works, “The Problem We All Live With,” portrays “the little black girl in the white dress” integrating a New Orleans school.

One hundred and seven New York Times readers commented on “America, Illustrated,” and most of them were not happy with the article. Many remarks cited Solomon’s failure to mention “The Problem We All Live With.” One reader bluntly quipped: “The reporter (Solomon) was asleep at the switch.” The other people in Norman Rockwell’s America, people of color, had been strangely overlooked, again.I have dedicated Hidden in Plain Sight: The Other People in Norman Rockwell’s America to those “other people”: individuals who have been without name or face or voice for so long. And this book is dedicated to Norman Rockwell himself, the “hidden” Norman Rockwell, the man who conspired to put those “other people” into the picture in the first place.



Categories: American history, Arts, Book Review, Books

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19 replies

  1. “Routinely overlooked.” Powerful words. I am going to get that book. Thanks for the info.

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  2. Another great post, Marilyn. 🙂

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    • Thanks Bette. I reviewed this book when it first came out. She’s one of the Indie writers without a big publisher and a really NICE lady. The first post got almost no response, so I rewrote it and ran it again. Reviews don’t do very well on my site, so I cross-post to Amazon and Goodreads … but even so, I wish I could do more.

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  3. Marilyn, I very much enjoyed reading this post about Rockwell’s art – the hidden in plain sight. It was many years ago that, during a three-day long weekend trip into New England for the Columbus Day holiday jaunt with a few close friends from Long Island NY, my husband and I made a point to visit the museum in Stockbridge. I remember feeling awed and also feeling like I was in a chapel – a noisy one – but a chapel nonetheless. The feeling of quiet inside me and taking in the huge experience of actually standing in front of and being surrounded by this man’s creativity strongly struck me. He made huge statements with his art, and I sure was an admirer as well as were my friends. I remember one of the docents there told us that they have many originals in storage and that they regularly changed out the paintings 4 times a year, so that it doesn’t get boring as well as making them all available for viewing all through the year. Thanks for bringing back that lovely memory of mine with this post. 🙂

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    • Thank you!! I’m glad you enjoyed it, doubly glad that you’ve been to the museum. I read this book when it first was published, but the review passed almost without notice. I figured it deserved better, so I rewrote it, added the picture it needed. I felt it is not only well written, but it is refreshing for a woman of color to remember that Norman Rockwell spent a lifetime trying to paint a world of inclusion. No one tried harder, yet he has gotten such an unfair reputation.

      Garry and I were just talking about maybe finding a time to go back to Stockbridge for a weekend. We haven’t been there in about 20 years. High time for a return visit!

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  4. Thank you for this recommendation. 🙂

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  5. Thanks, just picked it up!

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  6. Selective vision is nothing new to people. If I own a blue Volkswagen Beetle I have a heightened awareness of all like cars on the road. The reverse can be said about never owning a Dodge Dart. You cease to notice them because of your familiarity with your brand.

    In paintings, photographs and illustration the same tendencies can be observed. I supposed that’s why you hear the term that all black men or red men or orientals all look alike to white folk.

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    • I interviewed Norman Rockwell very early in my career at Ch 7/Boston. We filmed at his home. I was a bit nervous, expecting a crusty standoff-ish person. Mr. Rockwell was just the opposite, even asking about how I was faring in my career. There were very few people of color on television back in those days. Mr. Rockwell, in person, was like one of those GENTLE folks in his paintings.

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      • He is one of the people who I very much wish I had met. He was one of the good guys … and fashionable or not, I love his work. Do you realize that his museum in Stockbridge is the ONLY art museum you and I ever visited together? We did the Science Museum a bunch of times with Kaity when she was little, but we actually went to the Rockwell Museum voluntarily!

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      • That is such a fond memory I’m sure Garry. I envy you the opportunities you’ve have to meet and talk with in your life. I was a buddy artist at one point and Norman Rockwell was my hero.

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    • Sort of like Douglas Adams “SEP” field. Not my problem? I see nothing.

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