A "Rosie the Riveter" poster. 

The name Norman Rockwell often conjures up specific images: A family gathered around a table as mother brings out the turkey, or perhaps his triple self-portrait and its jauntily angled pipe. The artist illustrated the covers of several magazines and produced paintings by the score, but it’s his Saturday Evening Post covers that remain most lodged in the popular consciousness. The Museum of Fine Arts Houston is well aware, luring visitors in with those cheerful depictions of daily life before delivering a well-timed sucker punch: a breathtaking collection of his most moving pieces.

“Norman Rockwell: American Freedom” is four rooms of Rockwell and associates, beginning with the aforementioned Post covers. Works such as “Home from Vacation,” showing a family tuckered out after a day of fun, and “Bargaining with Antique Dealer,” featuring a woman nose-to-nose with a salesman, hardly hint at their 1930s origins. Instead of focusing on tragedy, Rockwell’s Great Depression pieces show little moments of daily life. Only a few show evidence that things weren’t quite as they had been before. “Ticket Seller,” for example, features a glum travel agent caged up in his booth without a single customer.

Of particular interest in this room is the incomplete version of “Norman Rockwell Visits A Ration Board,” a self-described ‘”rough color sketch” gifted to a friend. The faces on the right side of the painting left unfinished, the objects in the room at various stages of texture and completeness — it offers a fascinating glimpse at Rockwell’s process.

The second room is a gut punch. Photographs and sketches illustrate triumphs and tragedies such as Pearl Harbor, the Great Depression, the Battle of Iwo Jima, the liberation of Jews from Auschwitz and the Normandy landings on D-Day. Very little of the work is Rockwell’s. Instead, the room features photographers including Marion Post Wolcott and W. Eugene Smith as well as artists such as Albert Gold and Fred Eng. Some works are by unknown individuals, but all were chosen for their affecting depictions of weighty moments.

The third room represents another shift in theme. From the starkly poignant photographs that preceded it we move to Rockwell’s depictions of Willie Gillis, Jr., a fictional World War II private shown in a series of humorous situations. The mood of the room is patriotic and hopeful; war bond posters share the walls with Rosie the Riveter and a series of New Year’s babies. A draft of Roosevelt’s speech on the Four Freedoms paves the way for Rockwell’s illustrations of the same: “Freedom of Speech,” showing a man speaking at a town hall meeting; “Freedom of Worship,” showing people at prayer; “Freedom from Want,” the iconic Thanksgiving dinner picture; and “Freedom from Fear,” showing parents tucking a child into bed.

The final room is, in its own way, as harrowing as the second. There are no hollow-eyed prisoners or bloody battlefronts here, but it is a record of America’s greatest hopes and failures. Rockwell’s feelings on the civil rights movement are depicted in the likes of “The Problem We All Live With,” a simple piece, showing a young girl in a white dress. Her dark skin is vivid against the wall behind her, as is the flung tomato that smashed just behind her head. This is Ruby Bridges, 6 years old, on her way to William Frantz Elementary School. The room’s other expressions include Abraham Lincoln at work, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the nameless crowds in Rockwell’s “Golden Rule,” showcasing many diverse faces cast in the same expression of hope.

It’s an exhibition worth seeing.

Mary Newport is a reporter for The Facts. Contact her at 979-237-0149.

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