Norman's American Dream


Norman's American Dream Transformed by Thomas

Norman Rockwell was instrumental in delivering the ideal version of the American Dream. Images of awkward teens, playful children, loving parents, and patriotic citizens saluting the Flag dawned the covers of the Saturday Evening Post from most of the early 20th century.

Icons such as Doctor and Doll and Happy Independence Day were known as Rockwellesque giving examples of a softer, lighter, more innocent time in history. One can't help but look at these paintings and feel a sense of nostalgia and angst for simpler times.

By the 1960s, his work in Look Magazine, such as New Kids in the Neighborhood and The Problem We All Live With, began showcased a darker side of America, one of severe Racism towards the very people who supported the spirit of the Constitution paradoxically from the very people who cherished the framework of the Constitution.

Rockwell faced an unwritten rule in the publishing business, that of minority groups were never to be shown outside of labour positions. 

Racism: Intended prejudice and discrimination directed against a person or people based on their ethnic group

Stereotypes: A widely held oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.

"In a 1971 interview with writer Richard Reeves, Rockwell explained the unwritten rule laid down by his first editor at the Post: "George Horace Lorimer, who was a very liberal man, told me never to show colored people except as servants." Lorimer was Rockwell's editor at the Post for his first twenty years there." (Source)

Nearly two hundred years since the end of lawful slavery the battle burns hot and deep. In a similar vein to Rockwell exodus from mainstream idealism, Hank Willis Thomas, an American artist working primarily with themes related to identity, history, and popular culture, presents an updated version of Rockwell's Four Freedoms.

"Thomas's bold, thoughtful, and deeply moving artwork asks us to see and challenge systems of inequality that are woven into the fabric of contemporary life, leaving no doubt that art is an essential tool in an ongoing struggle for social justice. Spanning nearly twenty-five years of Thomas's exploration of everyday imagery and its consequences, All Things Being Equal... demands that we look critically at our society while reminding us that we have the power to speak, listen, hope, and hold fast to joy." (Source)

Inspired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1941 Four Freedoms State of the Union Address, Norman Rockwell's Four Freedoms debuted 1943. He struggled with how to present these topics but felt deeply that each of the four freedoms was the cornerstone of the American Dream.

  • Freedom of Speech without dread of imprisonment
  • Freedom of Worship without repercussions
  • Freedom from Want, to all, have every opportunity available for sustainable life
  • Freedom from Fear and know your family is safe

Of the Four Freedoms, Rockwell struggled the most with Freedom from Want. As his brushes stroked the canvas he was well aware of the starving children, emaciated faces, and dissolute conditions during WWII, yet he was offering a picture. He never understood how nations with so much offered so little to those in need.

The power of Rockwell's work was in its reliability to your situation. In a sense, you were the center of the painting.

The American Dream was forever immortalized in Rockwell's paintings but for Thomas, it needed a facelift. He wanted to represent Rockwell's idealized America with a modern silhouette. Reminding Americans they were more than a hodgepodge of genders and races isolated from each other. But rather, they were citizens apart of a tradition of strength, fortitude, liberties, and autonomy afforded to all humans. In that spirit, he reached out to photographers and personalities with a reimagine Four Freedoms.

What do you think? What is the American way?

Strike that... Rockwell and Thomas would ask, more importantly, what is the Human way?

Kelly Perez, Adjunct Professor