Yankee Classic: Why We Still Love Rockwell
As if to confirm that, our next tour stop is a display of Rockwell’s ledger books, his records of cash in and cash out, which he rendered in exact detail in ink. We also see props from his studio along with a pair of old shoes he wore out, probably on the way to the bank. Suddenly the crowd begins to murmur and people move to the windows. A tremendous, tree-bending storm firing lightning bolts has erupted, and then the lights go dead. Our tour guide departs to find out why.
“Not to fear,” a woman in our group says, and she switches on a miniature flashlight. We follow her back to the galleries. They are as dim as cathedrals. Holding the flashlight, the woman walks from one painting to the next, illuminating, in small circles, details of the works — hands gnarled, faces crabby, shoes marching — and she says, “Here we see America’s real people, their goodness and their struggles. Norman Rockwell captures the humor of life and shows us at our moral best.”
“Look at the wedding ring embedded in the praying hands,” someone says when we come to “Freedom to Worship,” an illustration done in 1943 as part of a series called the “Four Freedoms” that raised $132 million for the war effort.
“Grandma’s expression never changes,” a second voice says at “Going and Coming” from 1947, which depicts the before and after of a family outing.
“They march with such a determined lockstep,” a third voice says about an illustration Rockwell did for a 1964 Look magazine piece about integration.
“. . . New Hampshire, when I delivered the Post,” a voice we recognize says.
The museum lights flicker, then come on: Standing there with the flashlight, wearing a blue T–shirt and off–white crucifix, her gray hair showing natural dash, is Sister Teresa Ann, a nun from Connecticut. “Bravo,” a woman says.
Some formal barrier in the museum has been broken by the wind and rain and fallen branches; laughter breaks out, strangers relate where they were in 1952 when “Day in the Life of a Little Girl” was done, and the hour becomes a reunion for the generation that predominates here: kids in the Depression, soldiers and riveters during the war, fathers and mothers in the fifties and sixties — people who remember when decency and wit were what counted if you wanted to be invited into someone’s home on Saturday evening.
“I have tried, as best I knew, to give . . . people a little beauty and happiness and humanity,” Rockwell once said.
Because the power company cannot guarantee electricity to keep the air-conditioning running, the museum closes for the rest of the day. The tour guides shut the gallery doors. Sister Teresa Ann is looking at books in the gift shop. Next to her a Chinese couple laugh over a card that shows a man selling ice boxes to Eskimos.
The boy in the Nikes sits on a bench with his girlfriend. His left knee shines through the ragged hole in his Levis. “I don’t know,” he says, “maybe his point is that if you idealize the good, the good is what you’ll get. What do you think, Quimby?”
In 1939, when Rockwell was 45, he moved his studio from New Rochelle, New York, to Arlington, Vermont. He complained that “the kids were too well dressed in New Rochelle.” In Arlington, though, “my pictures grew out of the world around me, the everyday life of my neighbors.” I drive north from Stockbridge on Route 7 to take a look at Arlington.
Rockwell outside the studio was a putterer and a poker, a man in search of faces and stories, who once said the street was his stage — but not like other American pokers, like Walt Whitman, for instance, peering at people from the back of their open hospital gowns with awe. Rockwell was an innocent afoot on Main Street in Arlington — like Jimmy Stewart in Bedford Falls in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life — tipping his hat while making a note that the wart on your grandmother’s nose ought to be remembered for his next Halloween illustration.
See Arlington and you see America as it should be — the red covered bridge standing out against the snow, or sons who one day will win varsity letters splashing with their dads in the smooth — rocked Battenkill — with God looking down from heaven. But should He drop His guard on America, should He be distracted by yet another moral outrage committed by the pomaded French, say, then you beseech Norman, ask him to redo things a bit with his brush, make the world evenly rectangular so that we can celebrate springtime with dancing rabbits and turtles and geese, as he illustrated on a Post cover in 1927.
Rockwell’s apotheosis in the eyes of the American public came about because he gave us what we wanted to see. “There was a time when all you had to do was to draw a mother, a kid, and a dog. If you really wanted to be sentimental, you put a bandage on the dog’s leg,” he said. In Arlington they’ve given him his own church.