Yankee Classic: Why We Still Love Rockwell
This Yankee Classic is from February 1994.
With something hawkish peeping from her buttony eyes, our tour guide at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, makes sure that none of us strays off the carpet and onto the no-man’s-land of shiny tile, where we would be too close to the illustration of the Boy Scout and grandfatherly war veteran that was painted by “America’s most beloved artist” in 1924.
“Now what do you think the older man is telling the Boy Scout?” the tour guide demands of our group of strangers. In the picture the grandfather wears a blue military uniform, holds a map on his knee, sits beside a drum, and gestures to the wide-eyed boy.
“He’s telling him about his exploits in the Civil War,” a gray-haired man says.
“Most people guess that,” the tour guide says, “but you’re wrong.” Now we all feel stupid, so we all look at our feet and wait to be told what we’re seeing, and you feel really stupid when you have to be told what you’re seeing in a Norman Rockwell illustration.
Finally the tour guide says, “The caption to this was, ‘If your wisdom teeth could talk, they’d say use Colgate’s.’ It was an ad for Colgate’s Dental Cream.”
“Toothpaste?” a young man about 19 says. He’s wearing fat-tongued Nikes, stylishly untied. His blonde girlfriend seems equally puzzled.
“Norman did work for magazines, card companies, insurance companies, tire companies, liquor and tobacco companies,” the tour guide says.
“I thought he was an artist,” the young man says.
“I used to deliver the Saturday Evening Post in a little town in New Hampshire,” the gray-haired man says. “When I was a barefoot boy.”
“I thought he was an artist,” the young man says again, and he drops out of our little pilgrimage to look on his own, the tongues of his shoes wagging back and forth as if they’re repeating juicy gossip.
“He was America’s most beloved artist,” the tour guide repeats. “Now please move on.” Twenty-two obedient feet follow her around the museum, which, like the town of Stockbridge itself, shows classic simplicity in its wood and white paint, its tidy spaciousness, and its benches for appreciating that you’re sitting where the artist lived and worked.
Norman Rockwell was born 100 years ago this month in New York City. At age 17 he was called the “boy illustrator” by his envious fellows; at 22 he illustrated his first of 321 covers for the Saturday Evening Post, the most prestigious publication of its day for a commercial artist. He produced more than 4,000 works, including portraits of presidents and movie stars, during his 60-year career. He moved to Stockbridge from Arlington, Vermont, in 1953 because his wife was ill, and he resided there until his death in 1978.
“I have the best of all possible worlds and the best of all possible lives,” Rockwell once said.