Norman Rockwell, changing with the times

January 29, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, journalists.

By 1963, Norman Rockwell had been associated with the Saturday Evening Post for nearly five decades, had created icons for the American public, and had himself become something of an icon. As an illustrator, the title he gave himself, he had reflected in his art how many Americans envisioned themselves.

The problem was that it was a vision of white America, not Black America, and the nation was changing. 

Rockwell, too, had changed, and that led him to abandon the magazine he was most closely associated with. As Andrew Yarrow relates in a Washington Post article from late last year:

After including two Black children in his 1961 illustration “Golden Rule,” Rockwell began receiving hate mail from segregationists, and the Post told him he should paint portraits only of statesmen or celebrities. Those instructions clashed with his conscience. Severing his ties with the magazine in 1963, Rockwell told his longtime editors that he had “come to the conviction that the work I now want to do no longer fits into the Post scheme.”

He joined Look magazine, and it was there that he painted some of the hardest-hitting, most widely seen visual attacks on racism in the nation’s history.

His most famous painting of that era of his career was The Problem We All Live With (below) showing a little Black girl surrounded by four U.S. marshals walking to school. But Rockwell didn’t stop there.

He followed this with a haunting 1965 painting to accompany an article titled “Southern Justice,” of three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi the summer before. The two-page sepia-toned image shows a White activist, about to be shot, holding the bloodied body of a Black man above the dead body of their White compatriot on a deserted road, with the shadows of the murderers on the right. Another 1967 painting showed Black and White children looking at each other, while an adult looked on disapprovingly, to illustrate a story on Black families moving into a White neighborhood.

Born in 1894, Rockwell began his artist career as a student when he received a commission to illustrate a book. Magazine editors liked his work, At 19, he became an editor for Boy’s Life magazine and regularly illustrated stories and designed covers for that publication. With a friend’s help, he submitted his first successful cover to the Saturday Evening Post in 1916. From that time on, he was a regular on their pages and cover.

Rockwell’s work appeared in many forums. He was closely associated with the Boy Scouts of America, and he did work for the U.S. Government among many other clients. By the time he left the Post in 1963, he had completed more than 300 covers for the magazine. During his lifetime, he did more than 4,000 painting and had multiple exhibitions and showings.

Rockwell died in 1978 at the age of 84.

After several moves during his career, Rockwell landed in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in 1953, and there the Norman Rockwell Museum still is open today year-round.


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