Though his home was rural Vermont, Norman Rockwell was familiar with the integrated urban neighborhoods that flourished in 1940s America. Long before the interstates, Levittown and the “white flight,” working-class neighborhoods in Troy , New York and Los Angeles, California, attracted the famous illustrator. He drew sketches and took photographs of his homes and people, and these sketches provided the backdrop for two of Rockwell’s most memorable Saturday Evening Post covers, homecoming soldier (1945) and road block (1949). And true to their urban theme, both illustrations include African Americans.
Known as “The Collar City,” Troy was home to Arrow Shirts, whose “Arrow Collar Man” became famous thanks to advertisements created by Rockwell’s mentor and friend, JC Leyendecker. Troy was a booming industrial city, making four million necklaces a week during the 1920s. Another source of industrial fame for the city was its blacksmithing, manufactures that, by the mid-19th century, were second only to Pennsylvania’s. .
From his Vermont home, Norman Rockwell traveled frequently through Troy on his way to Albany, New York, where he caught the train to New York City. When the artist decided to create a Post cover to commemorate the return of World War II veterans to their hometowns, he decided to turn that hometown into working-class Troy, New York.
homecoming soldier appeared on the front page of the Saturday Evening Post on May 25, 1945. Among the people joyfully (or sheepishly, in the case of his young girlfriend) welcoming the young soldier home is not only Norman Rockwell himself ( standing in a tenement doorway), but also two children hanging recklessly from a tree they have climbed, wildly waving a welcome. One of the two children is black.
In 1945, children went out to play. No “helicopter parents,” no play dates. Black and white kids had fun and fought together on the streets of America. Think “Our Gang.” Elsie Wagner Fenic, in her moving memory White girl in Harlem, provides a charming look at this time. A second-generation Polish-American, Fenic can still jump a pretty bad double dutch, thanks to her spending her early nineteen years enjoying 1940s New York City street games with black and Latino friends.
Norman Rockwell brought together black and white playmates at homecoming soldiernot to make a declaration of civil rights, but because, on the streets of Troy, New York in 1945, they really were there.
Another Norman Rockwell urban setting was Los Angeles, California.
During the winter of 1948-49, while vacationing with his in-laws in Los Angeles, Rockwell visited Mrs. Merrill, a widow and owner of a boarding house for women. He wanted to borrow the whole house from her.
Located in the MacArthur Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, 719 South Rampart Boulevard was a three-story tenement flanked by similar structures and the “Pacific Telephone and Telegraph” building, the workplace of many of Mrs. Merrill’s Boarders. . Rockwell sought Ms. Merrill’s permission to hold a photo shoot in front of her building. Capturing the street and some of its residents as models, she would later use these photos to create one of her famous Saturday Evening Post covers. Gol Ms. Merril said no. Apparently, even in 1949, Norman Rockwell was not loved by everyone.
The energetic middle-aged landlady felt that, in his paintings, the famous artist did not adequately “enhance” his female subjects. However, Rockwell persisted in her request and Merrill finally relented: for the payment of $50.00.
The camera crew appeared on South Rampart while one of the members of Mrs. Merrill’s tenants, Antonia Piasecki, was doing her laundry. In a letter to the Norman Rockwell Museum, she writes, “Mr. Rockwell asked me for fancy underwear for the clothing line. I gave him nylon stockings, black lace-trimmed panties, and a bra he hung himself…”
A moving truck arrived, complete with California license plates and two moving truck drivers. Many photos were taken. the result was road blockthe character-filled illustration that appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post on July 9, 1949.
Norman Rockwell put himself in the painting: it’s the violin teacher looking out the window of what was actually Mrs. Piasecki’s bedroom. Ms. Piasecki also became a model for Rockwell: she is the young woman who looks out of the window below Rockwell. The red-haired lady standing at the cellar door? That’s the model of resistance turned into Rockwell, Ms. Merril. The models for other figures in the painting have also been identified: Joseph Magnani, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and a friend of Rockwell’s, is the artist hanging from the window in a building across the street, accompanied by a barely clad young woman. Peter Rockwell, the artist’s youngest son, is the speckled boy with the violin just below them. But Ms. Piasecki doesn’t remember “there were all those kids (at the scene of the shooting) at the time.”
“All those kids” is probably Ms. Piasecki’s polite code for the two little black kids posing at the bottom of the scene. They stand solemnly with their backs to the viewer, studying the impasse created when the big red truck meets a small white dog.
Norman Rockwell apparently did not meet any black children on South Rampart Street that day. But given his understanding of similar neighborhoods like those in Troy, New York, he knew they were out there, somewhere. So the intrepid artist went out and found them.
They are touching in elegance, innocence and simplicity. Two black children, a girl and an older boy, in rear profile. The black-and-white photo in the Norman Rockwell Museum archives shows the boy’s shirt neatly ironed, the girl’s braids immaculately groomed. Both are standing with their hands behind their backs, looking at an invisible horizon.
The names of these two small models are unknown. Nothing is written on the back of the photo. Rockwell’s meticulously guarded receipts do not reveal who was paid to pose for this shot. The location of the photograph, although it appears to have been taken in Los Angeles, is also not known for certain.
But this much is known: In 1949, Norman Rockwell purposely went out and found two black children to model for him so that he could place their figures in his illustration. Rockwell knew they were supposed to be in the picture.
The house at 719 South Rampart Boulevard is gone. Where the building once stood, a parking lot now stands. In the 1950s, integrated neighborhoods began to disappear from the United States. Consequently, people of color also disappeared from Norman Rockwell’s 1950 paintings.