Norman Rockwell Global Citizen: Painting “The Big Idea”

Press Release – June 30, 2015

We The Peoples: Norman Rockwell's United Nations

We The Peoples: Norman Rockwell’s United Nations

With war raging around the globe, in 1941 when Norman Rockwell responded to the United States government’s call to artists to depict President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedom ideals, he turned to the subject matter he knew best: ordinary people. The resulting images became some of the most enduring icons in American Art and defined an aspiration to ensure people the world over had the right to speak freely, worship according to their choosing, have access to adequate food and shelter and could live safely without fear.

Rockwell came to describe these works as “big ideas,” a concept he was to wrestle with for the next three decades as his artistic vision and creativity turned toward subjects of human rights and dignity for all people. He said, “Whenever there is a ‘big idea’ I am trying to convey, I always use plain everyday people to express the idea.”

Letters in our Museum archives from the NAACP affirm his membership in this organization as early as the 1940s and reveal communications that planted the seed to speak out through his art for freedom for all people, including African Americans who, under Jim Crow laws and practices, did not enjoy the same freedoms as other American citizens and as we entered World War II to protect around the world.

Before turning his brush to the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War, Peace Corps, War on Poverty, and other international interests for the State Department and US Office of Information in the 1960s, Rockwell attempted one of his most ambitious “big ideas.” In 1952 he was moved to create a signature image to represent the United Nations, the young organization that had established in 1945 in a signing ceremony in San Francisco its founding charter that began, “We the Peoples.”

For inspiration, Rockwell visited the just built United Nations Headquarters in New York to gather ideas, sketch and photograph the workings and convening of nations at the young peacekeeping organization representing the Peoples of the World. To communicate this big idea, Rockwell chose to portray the founding 51 nations, through 51 figures reflective of diverse cultures, religions, races and ethnicities, to represent the aspirational goals of the young organization.

Rockwell’s drawing marked a significant shift in the artist’s work that enlarged his vision and visual commentary from national to international. The United Nations charter inspired his global thinking, just as years before he had been inspired by President Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech.

We don’t know exactly why the work was never finished as a painting; we have only the magnificent drawing, recently conserved and seen here for the first time at the UN, which perhaps serves as a fitting metaphor for the unfinished aspirational work of the United Nations.

We do know that Norman Rockwell felt rather sheepish about not finishing it! He said, “Nowadays I avoid the UN building. Suppose I ran into one of the public relations people who arranged this for me?” Wouldn’t he be pleased that the UN public relations team requested Rockwell’s signature work be exhibited to communicate the ideals of this great institution?”

We might however, consider that he actually did complete and reinterpret the work in the form of the Saturday Evening Post cover known as The Golden Rule, reproduced in the beautiful mosaic at the UN. In this image he expressed what I believe to be his core belief that guided his art from a young artist to his maturity as an elder statesman: that we are one people sharing one world in common humanity.

In its later incarnation, The Golden Rule, the delegates are removed and the Peoples look straight on at the viewer as if to bear witness: We are all one. Through our cultural, national, political, racial, ethnic and religious differences, we are all the same.

Norman Rockwell genuinely loved people. And as he matured, and was given opportunity as an illustrator to use his voice to call attention to our hopes and aspirations, as well as the human foibles and injustices he observed, he created some of America’s most enduring artistic statements, which, because of his beloved following, touched millions of lives and inspired many to action to make the world a more just place.

Whether through the principles of democracy expressed in the Four Freedoms, the injustice of bigotry conveyed with dignity and respect through the eyes of a child in The Problem We All Live With, or by the shared tenet of our common humanity portrayed in The Golden Rule, Rockwell’s iconic paintings powerfully communicate our universal truths and aspirations.

Norman Rockwell was the people’s painter. Chronicler of America and people of many nations, for nearly 70 years he painted moments of everyday life with humor and dignity for the major publications of the day. Norman Rockwell Museum, located in his hometown in Stockbridge, in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, is committed to telling our nation’s story through pictures. For 46 years we have studied, exhibited, collected and preserved the best of American illustration art. Like Rockwell, our Museum’s work is national in scope but all about building community wherever his art is shared.

Civic participation inspired Rockwell and it continues to inspire the museum that bears his name. When UN Deputy Secretary General, Jan Eliasson asked us to be part of this year’s celebration, we could not be more proud and more eager to share Rockwell’s aspirational message to honor the work of the UN to achieve peace, social justice and humanity for all the world’s peoples.

We are honored to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, as seen through the eyes of Norman Rockwell through our exhibition We The People’s: Norman Rockwell’s United Nations.

The exhibition is a tribute to the world from the Norman Rockwell Museum, the United Nations Foundation and the United Nations. Two years in the making, we believe the exhibition captures the best of all of us—our strength, our dignity and our resolve, to inspire us all to continue our humanitarian work and see the best in everyone.

Laurie Norton Moffatt, Director/CEO
Norman Rockwell Museum

Visit the “We The Peoples: Norman Rockwell’s United Nations” Exhibition Website

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