In his prime years as an artist, the oh-so-refined fine arts community derided Norman Rockwell as a corny chronicler of middlebrow American life. His realistic paintings, meticulously drawn from life, were in almost prissy contrast to the ferocious abstractionism of the time.
Worse, his paintings told stories that could be termed “heartwarming,” and his preferred outlets were the glossy – and well-paying – mass circulation magazines of those pre-TV days, particularly the Saturday Evening Post for which he did 322 covers. He did not fit the popular stereotype of the struggling, tormented artist. Indeed, he lived a comfortable life in New England frequently using his fellow townspeople as models.
Three of his better known paintings came up for auction this month. “Saying Grace,” a 1951 oil of an elderly woman and presumably her grandson saying grace before lunch in a blue-collar diner, sold for $46 million, a record price for an American auction. Two other paintings, “The Gossips,” a 1948 Post cover, and “Walking to Church,” a 1953 cover, sold for $8.45 million and $3.2 million respectively.
During World War II, his series of paintings, “The Four Freedoms” – freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear, in ordinary American settings – raised more than $130 million for the war effort in print sales and a touring exhibition.
Rockwell consciously avoided controversial or unpleasant subjects although one notable exception is “The Problem We All Live With,” a brave little 6-year-old black girl, in her best dress, being escorted to an all-white school in 1950 by four towering federal marshals. A smashed tomato lies at the foot of the wall behind them on which the word “nigger” can be partially discerned.
The painting was hung in the Clinton White House and Ruby Bridges was there to see it installed. It was too bad that Rockwell, who died in 1978, couldn’t have been there to paint the scene.