Norman Rockwell and New England
This week I traveled from Florida to New England to visit my family in Western Massachusetts. I had told my Father on previous visits that I really wanted to experience the Norman Rockwell Museum and his studio in Stockbridge, MA. Today we made the trip. We also learned that this quaint little museum has over 200,000 visitors a year!
Rockwell was originally from New York and later in his life he moved to New England, he has been quoted as saying that his studio in Stockbridge was his best studio of all (he occupied 20 studio spaces in his professional career). The little red barn-like building was originally located in the center of Stockbridge, where he painted for the last 20 years of his life, it was moved to grounds of the museum in 1986.
Fall in the Berkshires
We drove about an hour through the rolling hills of fall foliage of the Berkshires from the farm town of Hadley. The leaves are past peak but they were still beautiful. Most of the reds and oranges have fallen, but the yellow leaves are still super vibrant and hanging on. Small towns in Western Mass like Stockbridge are beautiful and quintessentially New England. Downtown Stockbridge is like a story book illustration, Rockwell painted the village in panorama (started in the 1950’s and later finished in the 1960’s) and it was eventually published in McCall’s Magazine. Main Street Stockbridge at Christmas is celebrated every December in town, they re-enact the painting by adding all the elements from the painting and offer hot chocolate and cider to the town guests.
The Museum Collection
We took in a great gallery talk and a short film while at the museum. It was very interesting to learn about Rockwell’s history and his family. Norman Rockwell dropped out of high school at the age of 15 to attend the Art Students League in New York. By the time he was 19 he was the art editor for Boys Life Magazine, the official publication of the Boy Scouts of America.
At age 22, in 1916, Rockwell took his art to the Saturday Evening Post Magazine at the urging of a friend. The piece of art he brought for consideration was titled Boy with Baby Carriage, The Post liked it so much they purchased it on the spot for $75. This painting was Rockwell’s very first cover, appearing on May 20, 1916, it was an instant success.
In those days Norman didn’t have the money to pay professional models, so he asked his friends and neighbors to pose for him. Billy Payne, Rockwell’s neighbor, posed for all THREE of the boys in Boy With Baby Carriage. Our guide pointed out the red was Rockwell’s favorite color and that you could see it appearing in every one of his paintings.
Norman Rockwell spent 47 years painting cover illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post, his art graced the cover 323 times. That’s an amazing relationship and some serious job stability for an artist. During that timeframe, he also painted illustrations for advertising campaigns and other magazines.
The Four Freedoms Room
The most impressive room, for me, was the one that held The Four Freedoms paintings that were inspired buy FDR’s January 1941 Four Freedoms State of the Union address at the height of WWII. The paintings outlined the basic human liberties, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear, Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Worship. The paintings were reproduced in The Saturday Evening Post over four consecutive weeks in 1943. The Four Freedom Paintings became the highlight of a touring exhibition and sales drive for war bonds sponsored by The Post and the U.S. Department of the Treasury, raising over $132 million.
The Rockwell Studio Space
The studio of Norman Rockwell was a wonderful space to be able to actually go inside. Hard to believe that you are standing right where he lived and painted. I say “lived” because our guide told us he was a workaholic, she said that Rockwell spent 7 days-a-week in the studio, including holidays. She said he would watch his three boys open presents and then come out to the studio. We saw the green couch that he was said to have napped on when he was tired.
Keep Your Hands to Yourself
The workspace was roped off, but I made my way right to the edge of it when I saw the paint brushes. I asked our guide if those were in fact the brushes that Norman Rockwell used. “Oh yes,” she replied “Everything in this studio is as it was when he worked here, everything is real.” To which I replied, “I can’t even imagine being able to TOUCH those brushes.” Oh, oh, red flag. Our guide’s face went white and if she had a panic button she could have hit with her foot that alerted the main desk there was a problem in the studio, she would have done it. “Oh MY no! you cannot touch them, NOBODY can touch them… even our curator has to wear gloves to take one of his books off the shelf!” This was going the way of when I tried to get too close to the walls of the Sistine Chapel, only I think this lady was tougher than those guards. I stepped back and smiled.
Topping off the Day
Learning about art and art history takes a lot out of you. Dad and I enjoyed lunch together on our way home. Where else can you get butternut squash on pizza other than New England? We managed to beat the cold rain, it just started on our way back to my brother’s house in Hadley.
What a great day spent with my Dad.
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