Yankee Classic: Why We Still Love Rockwell
“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.
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.