Museum-goers take a closer look at Maggie Meiners’ “Freedom of Religion,” an updated take on the Norman Rockwell original. (MONTCLAIR ART MUSEUM)

Part of the power of Reimaging Rockwell at the Montclair Art Museum is that it forces us to confront the narrowness of the representation in many of his paintings. But it’s also important to note that the narrow depictions of Americans in Norman Rockwell’s work wasn’t just a result of “the times,” or his blinkered views. They were formal policy.

Currently on view at the Rockwell museum in Massachusetts is a letter from Rockwell’s editor at the Saturday Evening Post ordering him to redraw a painting he had submitted with an African American depicted in a professional job. Why? Longstanding Saturday Evening Post policy, as the editor sternly reminded Rockwell in a letter that is displayed in the museum, was that no African American could appear in an illustration except in a submissive role. 

White editors at the Saturday Evening Post knew the power of positive representation, and they forbade it. Rockwell eventually left the Post for Look magazine, where he was able to publish his iconic paintings of Ruby Bridges’ first day at an allwWhite school in New Orleans and of the Klan murders of the three civil right leaders in Philadelphia, Mississippi. 

Keith Hefner
Montclair





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