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Norman Rockwell’s Children

Author John Cech
Air Date 2/3/2000

Norman Rockwell’s Children Transcript

For the next several years, a remarkable exhibit of the paintings of Norman Rockwell will be touring the country. The exhibit began in Atlanta and now is moving to Chicago, then Washington, D.C., San Diego, Phoenix, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and, finally New York City. If you’re near one of these cities when the show is in town, don’t miss the chance to take your children to see these pictures that the filmmaker Stephen Spielberg, who incorporates Rockwell’s images into his movies, calls the “subliminal” stories of American life.

Rockwell’s own life has been well-documented in numerous books, and is the subject of a recent American Masters profile on PBS. Remarkably, he didn’t come from small-town America. Instead, Rockwell had a rather unhappy, urban childhood, where the only thing he seemed qualified to do was to draw–which he did brilliantly. He had his first big commercial jobs, illustrating for Boy’s Life and, later, for The Saturday Evening Post when he was barely out of his teens. Rockwell became, quite quickly, one of the most popular artists in America, and he remained that well into the second half of our century, until the sea change of American culture that began in the 1960s caught up with him, and for a time put him out of critical fashion–with everyone except all those millions of people who never gave up on Rockwell’s view of what America can and should be–a tolerant, generous-spirited, democratic land full of often quirky, but always decent individuals.

Rockwell’s children are especially engaging whether they’re racing from a swimming hole where they’re not supposed to be, or showing off a missing tooth, or sharing a swing or a rowdy football game together, or, in one of the show’s more remarkable images, examining their child’s face in a mirror, bereft that the model of beauty in a magazine may not be what is being reflected back at them.

Perhaps the most moving image of the show is Rockwell’s famous 1964 painting entitled “The Problem We All Live With” that shows a small black girl in a white dress, ankle socks and shoes, with a white ribbon in her pigtails who is being escorted by four U.S. Marshalls, past a tomato-spattered wall graffitied with an ugly racist epithet and into a previously segregated school. Disturbed by what he saw in America in the 1960s, Rockwell painted a masterpiece of sheer poignancy and enduring emotional power, a mirror that reflects us back to ourselves, both troubling and sublimely ennobled on a few feet of canvas.

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