Rethinking Rockwell in the Time of Ferguson

An illustrator adapted Rockwell’s The Runaway based on images of contemporary police

Freda Image (edited)
Illustrator Anthony Freda adapted Norman Rockwell's The Runaway to comment on police following this month's events in Ferguson, Missouri. Anthony Freda

In Norman Rockwell’s The Runaway, a Saturday Evening Post cover from 1958, a friendly-looking policeman sits at food counter next to a smiling boy who has run away from home. Rockwell modeled the policeman on his neighbor, Richard Clemens, a real Massachusetts state trooper. (We spoke to Clemens about posing for Rockwell in 2009.) People in law enforcement praised the painting when it came out.

However, in response to the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City-based illustrator Anthony Freda has reworked the iconic image to draw attention to the changing public perception of police officers.

In Freda’s update, which he created last Thursday, the policeman is wearing a riot helmet and bulletproof vest and has an assault weapon by his feet. Next to him is a frightened looking black boy, suggesting that half a century later, America is a long way off from the quintessential Americana associated with Rockwell’s work.

Freda made the piece digitally, drawing the boy and policeman over Rockwell’s original. The artist used contemporary photographs as references, images that have become seared in the public’s consciousness since Michael Brown died in Ferguson on August 9 from the six bullets fired from a policeman's gun.

“I’ve been focusing on these issues of the militarization of the police and the police state and ‘big brother’ for over a decade now,” says Freda, 50, who has illustrated for TimeThe New YorkerRolling StonePlayboy and The New York Times. “When I started there wasn’t a lot of people that were doing this. I was kind of considered to be out there and kind of a little crazy. But as these things have progressed, now it’s become more and more mainstream.” He admits that people used to call him a conspiracy theorist. His friends call him “Ranthony.”

The Runaway has been modified hundreds if not thousands of times,” says Martin Mahoney, director of collections at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, which displays the painting. “He is an artist that is easily translatable because of his popularity and how ubiquitous he is in American culture.”

Mad magazine recreated Rockwell’s The Marriage License with a gay couple in 2004. (Mad also published a Ferguson-themed parody of The Runaway this week, which Freda says he hadn’t seen until after completing his version.)

Freda’s reference to Rockwell is also significant because the older artist had been an advocate for civil rights. Freda says he used Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With, a 1964 work that features a Ruby Bridges-inspired girl walking with U.S. marshals, as another reference for his adaptation of The Runaway.

“What he believed was this idea of respect and tolerance for other people,” says Jeremy Clowe, also from the Rockwell Museum.

“I think he would be pleased that the terms of his ideas are still being used today,” Mahoney says. “With the events down south recently, perhaps the authorities aren’t seen in the same way as they used to be.”

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