STOCKBRIDGE — The first thing that struck me was the blood — real blood, thick, dark, oily, clawed along the shoulder of Norman Rockwell’s crisp white shirt like raw meat on a fresh tablecloth. Rockwell didn’t do expressionism — to paint reality, he needed reality. That’s why he would stage-direct models in precise poses in his studio to be photographed — so he could labor over them for hours and days, translating them to canvas, in the stillness they left behind.
But the blood? Well, he couldn’t ask anyone to pose for that. And so he took it on himself. Even in a black and white photo, with his face partly cropped — he needed to see the shoulder, just the shoulder, the grope and swipe of inky death on it — the blood is unsettling. That it was real — whose, he never said — served blunt testament to his commitment to his craft.
But Rockwell’s bloody shoulder also speaks to the gravity of the moment — a moment where the arc of the country’s history began to turn, and the legacy of its most popular, populist artist along with it.
At the Norman Rockwell Museum, in a new pocket-size show centered on the artist’s 1965 “Murder in Mississippi” work, Rockwell’s devotion to realism is spelled out. It’s a context his grandfatherly legacy has largely obscured. Rockwell took realism seriously. He painted every kick of dust, rumple of fabric, braid of hair and stitch of ball glove exactly — exactly — as he saw it. Close enough, simply, was never enough. But this is surely the artist at his most visceral and raw, painting the grisly aftermath of an armed conflict between civil rights workers and a frothing, police-backed KKK mob in Philadelphia, Miss., in the summer of 1964.
The picture is the anti-Rockwell: dark, ruddy, inchoate; lacking the crispness of line, the sparkle of color that made a Rockwell a Rockwell. The show is less about the painting than the artist’s process, and then less about process than the moment. It’s as exacting, as specific, as Rockwell himself would have been. There are photographs of models posed and illuminated by lights in his studio, situated in the exact pose in which he would paint them — a man in the foreground, crumpled to the street; a Black man slumped in the arms of his white colleague — all of it caught in a stark glare, light blazing from somewhere out of frame. (You can imagine headlights, torches, and a burning cross easily enough.) There are close-up photographs, the better to paint from: A pair of hands, a shirt clutched and stretched between them; a figure lain prone, face down on the tidy studio floor. And then there’s the blood, staining Rockwell’s own fingers, his gawky neck poking from the shirt collar just above the dark hand-printed stain.
Neither “visceral” nor “raw” would be the words that usually leap to mind with Rockwell. For all his virtuosity and greater ambitions, by 1965 he had long since become the old chestnut of American art, painting soda jerks and days at the lake as the art world narrowed from the moody introspection of post-Impressionism to gestural abstraction, Minimalism, and beyond.
His vision, of an American aesthetic narrative that might sit alongside the Old Masters he admired — Rembrandt, Velazquez — was, in Rockwell’s time, hopelessly out of date. He made a living for decades painting scenes of cheery idealism for the Saturday Evening Post, a mythic Americana wholesomeness that was distant enough by the 1960s to feel like a partly-remembered dream. He had long since been seen as an anachronism, a twee slice of history with no place in a roiling present. This was a fact not lost on him. Rockwell liked to tell a story of a 1949 visit to the Art Institute of Chicago, when he was already famous and Abstract Expressionism ascendant. “Are you Norman Rockwell?” an art student asked him, while he perused the museum’s Renaissance galleries. The gawky artist nodded. “My teacher says you stink,” the student sniffed, and walked away.
But for all his precision, his sentimentality, his rose-tinted nostalgia, Rockwell found a cause later in life he could feel in his bones. As the civil rights movement erupted into frequent mass violence in the early 1960s, Rockwell’s sunshiny Americana felt false and put-on — even to the artist himself.
He made “Murder in Mississippi” to illustrate a 1965 story for Look magazine on the killings of three civil rights activists: Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney. But Rockwell had made it clear where he stood well before. Just a couple of years earlier, he had left the Post, the country’s biggest magazine, where he spent more than 40 years as its principal star. Times had changed, and radically; Rockwell had, too. He chafed for years, though quietly, with the Post’s tacit policy of only portraying Black characters in servile roles. (At one point he was ordered to remove a Black man, portrayed as equal, from a group scene.) And in 1963, with the civil rights movement growing, and with peaceful protest being met with increasing violence, Rockwell took a side.
He left the Post that year and made “The Problem We All Live With,” for Look magazine. It was a painting of Ruby Bridges, a young Black girl in New Orleans being escorted by police for her own protection to her newly desegregated school. (Bridges’s historic walk took place in 1960; to mark its 50th anniversary in 2010, President Barack Obama borrowed the Rockwell piece from the museum to hang in the White House. Imagine that today.)
Look was everything the Post was not: Fresh and progressive, and in step with a changing world. Its art department was led by Allen Hurlburt, who was tuned to the rising discord of American life. Rockwell, dismissed though he was by an increasingly-detached, hive-minded art world elite, was still wildly famous and beloved by a broad swath of American society. He presented an opportunity Hurlburt was eager to seize: He could use Rockwell’s fame to subvert expectation, and to amplify the crises of the moment. Rockwell, who had been relegated to one-note puffery at the Post by the end — mostly celebrity portraits — saw an opportunity of his own: to reposition his love of narrative for a time when storytelling — and truth — was urgently needed.
It was a critical time for the country, and a turning point for the artist. After “The Problem We All Live With,” Hurlburt knew Rockwell was engrossed with the civil rights struggle. When the magazine started to investigate the murders in Mississippi for a future issue, Hurlburt hired Rockwell to illustrate the story. The artist pursued the assignment with obsessive fervor, combing through news clippings and recording details of the crime scene, right down to weather reports from the night of the killings. He photographed, sketched, and photographed again, smearing himself with real blood. Then, finally, he painted and submitted his final version to Hurlburt, who pushed it aside.
Why did the art director reject Rockwell’s work, perhaps the most labored-over piece of his long career? Because, he believed, he had something better: Rockwell’s final sketch, rough, dark and dynamic, simmering with a shadowy rage. It’s an outlier in the Rockwellian canon — quavering, uncertain, charged with outrage channeled directly from Rockwell’s soul to the page. The painting, meanwhile, is perfect — too perfect, as even Rockwell himself would come to admit. By the time he got to the canvas, “all the rage had drained out of it,” he said. (In a letter to Hurlburt later on, Rockwell is almost apologetic, maybe conditioned by years of art-world derision. “I tried in a big way (large size) to make an angry picture,” he wrote. “If I just had a bit of Ben Shahn in me” — he’s referring to the fiery Lithuanian-American artist, a stablemate of Rockwell’s at Look, who made social justice the moral core of his work — “it would have helped.” And then, Rockwell added a glum afterthought: “I sure tried, anyway.”
He did more than try. If the painting is a failure of perfection, then the sketch — which Hurlburt ran in the magazine, in all its ragged glory — is something more than perfect: Rockwell’s rage uncontained, for the first time finding its way to the page from his eye, his heart, and his mind. It is implicit, not explicit, as much about what it leaves out as takes in. It is mysterious, not obvious. It seethes. It is the least Rockwell Rockwell you’ll ever see. In that, maybe, it’s also the most.
NORMAN ROCKWELL: MURDER IN MISSISSIPPI
Through September 2020. Norman Rockwell Museum, 9 Route 183, Stockbridge. 413-298-4100, www.nrm.org