If Norman Rockwell were alive today: North Jersey photo exhibit updates iconic artist’s works

Painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell was renowned for capturing the essence of American life in his paintings and magazine cover illustrations over a span of six decades.

What if he were alive and active today?

Montclair Art Museum’s new exhibit, “Fragile Freedoms: Maggie Meiners Revisits Rockwell,” features 18 photographs that “reinterpret and update” the legendary artist’s classic images of mid-century America culture. The show will open on Sunday, Feb. 7, and run through June 13 at the museum’s 3 S. Mountain Ave. location.

Photo artist Maggie Meiners was inspired by a 2010 visit with her family to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. There she noticed that Rockwell’s paintings “were really sparking conversations among visitors.” The Winnetka, Illinois-based photographer decided to recreate some of Rockwell’s classic paintings with the hope that “these images will be a platform for people to use for discussion, to expand dialogue while connecting people on all levels.”

One of Meiners’ reworkings involves Rockwell’s 1943 painting “Freedom from Fear,” which depicts a white couple tucking their children into bed while holding a newspaper with a blaring headline on World War II bombings. Meiners’ photo shows a Black mother looking over her sleeping children while holding a paper with a headline reading “Another Black Youth Shot.”

Rockwell’s 1964 Civil Rights-era painting “The Problem We All Live With,” which captures 6-year-old Ruby Bridges walking past a racial slur scrawled on the wall as she’s escorted by U.S. marshals to her first day of class at an all-white school, is updated by in Meiners’ photo titled “Dream Act.” It shows a young immigrant girl surrounded by four U.S. border patrol agents.

On a lighter note, Meiners replaces the male sailor shown getting the latest update on his body art in Rockwell’s 1944 “The Tattoo Artist” with a woman.

Other Meiners reinterpretations include updates of Rockwell’s “Freedom of Speech,” “Freedom of Worship” and “Freedom from Want.” The exhibit is complemented by three original Rockwell paintings and archival documents.

“Look closely at these detailed photographs and compare them with Rockwell’s originals from the 1940s and 1950s,” curators Gail Stavitsky and Alison Van Denend write in their online note for “Fragile Freedoms.” “What has changed in the world since then?  What has stayed the same? Think about the artists’ perspectives on civic engagement, immigration, gun control, religion, gender, racism and the impact of technology, and talk with the people you came here with about what we can do to protect our fragile freedoms.”

A brief video showing Meiners at work recreating “Freedom of Speech” can be viewed on the museum’s website or on Vimeo.

Maggie Meiners Revisits Rockwell

A brief video showing photographer Maggie Meiners at work recreating “Freedom of Speech” can be viewed on the museum’s website or on Vimeo.Montclair Art Museum

Thank you for relying on us to provide the journalism you can trust. Please consider supporting NJ.com with a subscription.