STOCKBRIDGE, MASS. – “Stockbridge is the best of America. It’s the best of New England. Stockbridge is the best of everything. I know everyone in Stockbridge,” Norman Rockwell tells the world on a video narrated by his son Peter in the Norman Rockwell Museum’s Stockbridge Room, a room whose walls hold 321 original Saturday Evening Post magazine covers, illustrations Rockwell painted from 1916 to 1963, images that made him known throughout America and the world.
While aware of Rockwell, and the impact of his art on American culture, my initial trip to Stockbridge caught me unaware that its most famous citizen was America’s most renowned illustrator. And that on a splendid, serene 36-acre parcel, just outside of town, overlooking the Housatonic River Valley, lies his Stockbridge studio, and a museum dedicated to this most American of artists. And like the thousands who annually visit this popular Berkshire attraction, I too could not resist the opportunity to better know Rockwell.
Where does such an urge come from? Why was I virtually compelled to visit Rockwell’s museum? Maybe Rockwell knew better than I, better than anyone, that there were things I had not seen, things I had missed, as he tells us. “I love to tell stories in pictures. That’s what I go for. I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed.”
“They are iconic images of twentieth century culture, all three of them,” said Virginia M. Mecklenberg, chief curator of Smithsonian’s American Art Museum in a New York Times article. “Each of these paintings is just as relevant now as when they were made.” And in her study of Rockwell, Solomon concludes that in “The Problem We All Live With,” Rockwell’s 1964 portrayal for Look magazine of New Orleans schoolgirl Ruby Bridges being escorted by federal marshals to classes at a previously all-white school, he “produced the single most memorable painting to emerge from the civil rights movement.”
And so we come. Some to discover. Newcomers to Rockwell. Others to remember. Remembering a simpler time, a simpler way of life, taking time to reflect on Rockwell’s work. In a picturesque town whose citizens and streetscape were often the subject of his brush. A New England town that was once home to Alice’s Restaurant, made famous in song by Arlo Guthrie who still lives nearby.
The restaurant, now known as Theresa’s Stockbridge Café, lives on. But its infamy and position in the mind as Alice’s Restaurant remains strong, as evidenced by the signs saying Formerly Alice’s Restaurant, that lead to its back alley location.
Rockwell’s position in the American mind also remains strong, maybe more so than any other American artist. It may be that that position Rockwell occupies in the American mind draws us to know him and his work, because in knowing Rockwell, we come to know America, and thus ourselves, as we glimpse the life and view the work of an artist who’s risen from the ranks of cornball to a quintessential American master.
It’s recommended I take in the video downstairs in the Stockbridge Room. As noted previously, Rockwell’s son Peter narrates the film that broadly tells the life of an artist. Interspersed with quotes from Rockwell himself, no doubt from Dictaphone recordings for his autobiography, a collaboration with his son Tom, there is reference to his love of innovation, change, and the American spirit. And how in a changing, tumultuous world, through two world wars, Rockwell thrived. His stories, which he himself emphasizes, telling us, “The story is the first thing and the last thing,” reassure.
We’re told he gave his heart and soul to his craft. That his work is timeless, the best is painted in the style of the masters, and that Saturday Evening Post sales would jump when Rockwell’s art graced its cover. Rockwell was obsessed with details, such as lighting and the placement of objects. He often took hundreds of pictures of the models he employed, and sometimes worked for months on a single Post cover.
The red barnlike building was for many years left as it was when Rockwell died, but has been set back to October 1960 when he worked on “The Golden Rule,” and a reproduction of a study of that painting rests on an easel. Adjacent is a stand containing paints, his ever-present pipe lying on the top, with his chair sitting in front of both. The floors are hardwood, and to the right, bookshelves built into the wall bookend a green couch. Natural light, so important to Rockwell as he never worked with electric light, beams in through windows above the couch. To the left is a green, cushioned bench, built out of the wall, below windows allowing more light in. A beige Princess phone lies on a table alongside a sizable clock. Paintings and sketches hang from or are placed up against walls, and a variety of artifacts are interspersed throughout. Also on the left is a chest of drawers, and in the rear, below more windows, are a desk and a work table.
If you go
Stockbridge, Mass., and the Norman Rockwell Museum are about one hour east of Albany. The best option is to go to www.nrm.org, and review the directions under Visit. The museum address is 9 Route 183, Stockbridge, Mass. 01262.
The museum is open seven days a week year-round, except it is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. It’s open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. May through November.
Admission is $5-$17.50.
Gallery Talks are held daily at 11 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Model Talks with people who served as models for Rockwell are held the first Friday of every month.
For additional information about upcoming events, gallery updates, and special exhibits, consult the museum website, www.nrm.org, or call (413) 298-4100.