Reimagining Norman Rockwell’s America

By Laura M. Holson

Nov. 8, 2018

... Mr. Rockwell, who died 40 years ago on Nov. 8, is among America’s most influential illustrators. And he is experiencing a resurgence this year. The “Four Freedoms” series is touring the United States in celebration of its 75th anniversary. And The Saturday Evening Post, the literary magazine that published Mr. Rockwell’s series and many of his other illustrations, recently announced it was putting its archives online.

But it is the interpretation of the artist’s classic images, perhaps, that has given Mr. Rockwell’s work renewed life. Mr. Thomas is one of a number of artists who have reimagined “Four Freedoms,” most of them spurred by racial and political tension that has divided the country.


Among those is Maurice (Pops) Peterson, an artist from Hillsdale, N.Y., about 20 miles from Stockbridge, where the Norman Rockwell Museum is situated and where Mr. Rockwell had a studio in his later years. Mr. Peterson, 66, was unnerved by the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo.


“We do not all have freedom from fear,” he said in an interview.

Mr. Peterson used his iPhone in 2015 to create “Freedom From What?,” a photographic compilation he made based on Mr. Rockwell’s “Freedom From Fear.” In Mr. Peterson’s interpretation, a black man holds a newspaper with the words “I Can’t Breathe,” a reference to Eric Garner, the unarmed black man from Staten Island who died in 2014 after he was placed in a chokehold by the police.

“It was then my art became personal,” Mr. Peterson said.

 

In 2015, the artist Pops Peterson reimagined Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom From Fear” for a post-Black Lives Matter world.

Mr. Rockwell’s portraits of Americana in the 1940s and 1950s were quite popular, but largely limited to white, Anglo-Saxon subjects who were friends or acquaintances of the artist. His “Four Freedoms” series helped boost patriotism in a country on the brink of war, a visual reminder of American ideals. During World War II, they were turned into posters to muster sales of war bonds.

Laurie Norton Moffatt, director of the Norman Rockwell Museum, said, “Rockwell worked for hire and had to address the norms” of The Saturday Evening Post. Later, in the 1960s, the artist joined Look magazine and depicted civil rights and poverty. “We saw him progressively move toward more representation,” she said. “But it was an evolution.”

Ms. Moffatt said the museum embraces the work of Mr. Peterson — he has given lectures there — and others because it wants to connect the ideals in Mr. Rockwell’s paintings to current culture. But it also blunts criticism that Mr. Rockwell’s work is solely for a white audience. “It is a new way of stimulating the public and bringing him to a young audience,” Mr. Peterson said.

As part of the “Four Freedoms” tour, the organizers are showing works by contemporary artists inspired by the artist.

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