Yankee Classic: Why We Still Love Rockwell
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.
Well, the church has been converted, but not that converted. On the ceiling you can still see Catholic mysteries crudely done by some well-meaning local hand, Jesus and Mary and the angels lacking the dimension and detail Norman could have given them, the marketing oomph, as they look down forlornly into the temple where buyers and sellers do business over Rockwell prints, magnets, mugs, tapes, and cards.
“More people come here than would have if it were still a church,” Henry Hinrichsen, founder and vicar of the Arlington Gallery, says drolly. You can also see a short videotape about Rockwell and meet people who were among the 200 local residents (one-sixth of the town then) who served as models — and if you want to sit down, there’s a pew.
“My name’s Doris, and this is me in ‘The Gossips’ with the curlers in my hair. My hair wasn’t red, but Norman painted it red because he thought it looked better that way.” Doris Wright holds a pointer to the picture as she talks. It wasn’t until she got older that she appreciated what a privilege it was to be a Rockwell model, because she will be viewed eternally, even if it’s in curlers.
Kindly Mary Hall (a model for “A Scout Is Helpful” and “Homecoming”) testifies that yes, life in Arlington was exactly as Norman depicted it, and yes, he himself lived by the Golden Rule (which he also painted) when dealing with his neighbors — Norman of Arlington, who sold tickets at Grange dances and sent his sons to the local school.
“I do ordinary people in everyday situations, and that’s about all I do,” Rockwell once said. “Whatever I want to express, I have to express in those terms.”
On the trail of Norman Rockwell you begin to see Saturday Evening Post covers all around. In Stockbridge one evening I saw a man wearing a bad black wig that looked like a tarantula sitting on an egg. The man stood reading a poster for Noel Coward’s play Blithe Spirit. In Arlington I sat on a bench in front of the white post office while local citizens came for their mail — a shirtless man with a body of tent poles and a long beard, surely a model for Abraham Lincoln; a man in Levi’s as stiff as stove pipes, his belly rolling over his belt, a Santa Claus without a doubt.
Next I walked along the lake among the maples and pines in Shaftsbury State Park, just outside Arlington, where I saw one fish become two fish as it swam from the shadows into the sun; saw branches like slivers pricking the skin of the still lake; saw red berries, purple dragonflies, Jupiter-eyed frogs — uncountable details where, it has been said, God is found.
By the end of the walk I needed to rest. I sat down at a picnic table. A score of other people were sitting at picnic tables, too, all of us looking at the water and each other, seeing what we wanted to see reflected back perfectly.