Yankee Classic: Why We Still Love Rockwell

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"Excuse Me," by Norman Rockwell.

"Excuse Me," by Norman Rockwell.

"Excuse Me," by Norman Rockwell.

"Excuse Me," by Norman Rockwell.

All photos/art by Norman Rockwell

This Yankee Classic is from February 1994.

"Excuse Me," by Norman Rockwell.

“Excuse Me,” by Norman Rockwell, graced the March 1990 cover of Yankee Magazine.

Norman Rockwell

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.

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.

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.

Comments
  • The red covered bridge is a great place to stop and take a break when canoeing on the battenkill

    Reply

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