Although his home was rural Vermont, Norman Rockwell knew of the integrated urban neighborhoods that thrived in America in the 1940s. Long before 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 their homes and their people, and these sketches served as the backdrop for two of the most memorable covers of Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post. Homecoming GI (1945) and Road block (1949). And true to its urban theme, both illustrations include African Americans.
Troy, known as “The Collar City,” was home to Arrow Shirts, whose “Arrow Collar Man” was made famous by advertisements created by Rockwell’s friend and mentor, 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 hardware stores, which, by the mid-19th century, were second only to those of Pennsylvania.
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 commemorating WWII veterans returning to their hometowns, he decided to turn that hometown of Troy, New York, into the working class.
Homecoming GI appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on May 25, 1945. Among the people who welcome home with glee (or timidly, in the case of his young girlfriend), the young soldier is not just Norman Rockwell himself ( standing in a doorway of the house), but also two young men recklessly hanging from a tree they have climbed, waving savagely. One of the two boys is black.
In 1945, the children just went out to play. No “helicopter parents”, no play dates. Black and white children frolicked and fought together on the streets of America. Think of “our gang”. Elsie Wagner Fenic, in her moving memoirs White girl in Harlem, offers a beautiful look at this time. Fenic, a second-generation Polish-American, can still jump a pretty bad double Dutch, thanks to spending her first nineteen years enjoying 1940s New York City street games with black and Latino friends.
Norman Rockwell gathered black and white playmates Homecoming GI, not to make a civil rights declaration, but because, on the streets of Troy, New York in 1945, they really were there.
Another urban setting for Norman Rockwell was Los Angeles, California.
During the winter of 1948-49, while on vacation with his in-laws in Los Angeles, Rockwell visited Mrs. Merrill, a widow and owner of a women’s pension. He wanted to borrow his entire house.
Located in the MacArthur Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, 719 South Rampart Boulevard was a three-story dwelling flanked by similar structures and the “Pacific Telephone and Telegraph” building, the workplace of many of Ms. Merrill’s guests. . Rockwell sought Ms. Merrill’s permission to host a photoshoot in front of her building. Capturing the street and some of its residents as models, he would later use these photos to create one of his famous Saturday Evening Post covers. But Mrs. Merrill said no. Apparently, even in 1949, not everyone loved Norman Rockwell.
The middle-aged home fighter felt that the famous artist did not adequately “enhance” his female role models in his paintings. However, Rockwell persisted in his request and Merrill finally relented: for the payment of $ 50.00.
The camera crew appeared at South Rampart while one of the members of Ms. Merrill’s tenants, Antonia Piasecki, was doing laundry. In a letter to the Norman Rockwell Museum, he writes: “Mr. Rockwell asked me for fancy underwear for the clothesline. I gave him nylon stockings, black lace-trimmed panties, and a bra that he hung up …”
A moving truck arrived, complete with California license plates and two moving truck drivers. Many photos were taken. The result was Road block, the character-filled illustration that appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post on July 9, 1949.
Norman Rockwell put himself in the painting: he is the violin teacher looking out the window of what was actually Mrs. Piasecki’s bedroom. Mrs. Piasecki also became a Rockwell model: she is the young woman who looks out the window below Rockwell. The red-haired lady standing in the cellar door? That’s the model of resistance turned Rockwell, Mrs. Merrill. Models of 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, is the artist hanging from the window of a building across the street, accompanied by a barely covered young lady. Peter Rockwell, the artist’s youngest son, is the boy with glasses and the violin just below them. But Ms. Piasecki does not recall that “there were all those children (at the scene of the shooting) at that time.”
“All those children” is probably Ms. Piasecki’s polite code for the two little black children perched 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 white puppy.
Norman Rockwell apparently did not meet any black children on South Rampart Street that day. But given his knowledge of similar neighborhoods like those in Troy, New York, he knew they were there, somewhere. So the intrepid artist went out looking for them.
They are poignant in elegance, innocence, and simplicity. Two black children, a girl and an older boy, in profile from behind. The black-and-white photo in the archives of the Norman Rockwell Museum shows the boy’s shirt neatly ironed, the girl’s braids impeccably arranged. They are both standing holding their hands behind their backs, gazing into an invisible horizon.
The names of these two little models are unknown. There is nothing written on the back of the photo. Rockwell’s meticulously kept 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 with certainty.
But this is known: In 1949, Norman Rockwell went out on purpose 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 has disappeared. Where the building once stood there is now a parking lot. In the 1950s, integrated neighborhoods began to disappear from the United States. Consequently, people of color also disappeared from Norman Rockwell’s paintings in the 1950s.