It was a deeply moving scene in Arlington, Vt., as elderly neighbors who, as children, posed for some of Norman Rockwell’s iconic images of small-town life gathered for a reunion late last month. From Boy Scouts taking oaths to soldiers coming home to schoolkids being disciplined for quarreling, Rockwell’s warm vision, expressed over hundreds of Saturday Evening Post covers, defined Americana in the mid-20th century.
The boys and girls, now in their 70s and 80s, who modeled for the paintings were part of Rockwell’s middle career. Fertile as it was, this is also the period that Rockwell’s detractors point to when accusing him of a kind of genial repression — of seeing only the charm, innocence, and good intentions of rural America while blotting out evidence to the contrary.
There’s some merit to that critique. But Rockwell’s skeptics should take note of his edgier late career, when his paintings depicted scenes of racial intolerance, some of which — including an impressionistic rendering of the infamous murder of three civil-rights activists in Mississippi in 1964 — were without any lightness at all. His Saturday Evening Post days were long gone, and so was his nostalgia.
In celebrating Rockwell’s unique contribution to New England life, it’s worth noting that his work did more than just soothe or entertain. His decision to illustrate Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” — the working man standing up to address a town meeting, the grandmother presenting a Thanksgiving turkey — was an act of wartime patriotism, finding examples of the nation’s highest ideals in its ordinary activities. And in the 1960s, when it really counted, America’s foremost sentimentalist became a realist.