Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), The Runaway, 1958. Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, September 20, 1958. Oil on canvas. (Courtesy: Norman Rockwell Museum Collection, Norman Rockwell Art Collection Trust, ©1958 SEPS: Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN).
Prolonged pandemic and related relocation have led me to explore art venues I probably never would have sought out otherwise—such as this tribute to Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), located in the pre-Revolutionary-established village of Stockbridge, MA.
What: Norman Rockwell Museum; Pops Peterson: Rockwell Revisited
When: Permanent Display; Special exhibition, through May 2021
Where: Norman Rockwell Museum (NRM) Stockbridge, Massachusetts
The opening of the Norman Rockwell Museum in 1969 was facilitated by the artist, who spent the last two decades of his life in the town. The museum was reestablished on new grounds in 1993, along with Rockwell’s last studio. Since then, the historical and market value of his art has been rising incrementally, unraveling his niche status as a competent—if kitschy for many art cognoscenti—illustrator. His populist success was his failure, to paraphrase philosopher-art critic Arthur C. Danto, who argued for Rockwell’s art by virtue of its ability to connect emotionally with viewers (see “Age of Innocence“). I can say, straight away, that seeing his original paintings first-hand — if you know them only through reproductions and adaptations for print —will probably affect your considerations of his oeuvre.
Until recently, Rockwell was best known for his idealized representations of white-American-middle-class life from the eve of WWI to the 1960s. His pictorial and thematic tropes overlapped with those emerging in advertising and television programming, appealing almost subliminally to a mass mainstream audience accrued through his long affiliation with the Saturday Evening Post.
Over 300 of his cover illustrations for the publication spanning five decades are on view at the museum’s lower floor.
Norman Rockwell, Saturday Post Covers in the Stockbridge Room at the Norman Rockwell Museum. Copyright Norman Rockwell Museum. All rights reserved. (Courtesy: Norman Rockwell Museum).
This installation reads as a visual compendium of changing fashions, gender relations, gadgets, transportation modes, public persons, holiday trends, and reflections on two world wars— mostly upbeat and from the home front. Beyond certain cliché settings and light humor, and along with impressive, detailed naturalistic style, Rockwell’s prosaic humanism (for lack of a better term) seems to have rung true with many from the start. His seeming casual knack for capturing human postures and expressions, along with technical skill, was, in fact, diligently nurtured at art school in his native Manhattan. From there, he relocated to rural Vermont, where he became famous as the Boy Scouts of America artist who immortalized the local ginger-headed kids, apple pie moms, and Barney Fife policemen. And he would go on with doing just that at his peak upon arrival to Stockbridge.
As with many museums in the pandemic present, exhibitions centralize works in the collection, sometimes in lieu of canceled or postponed shows, often open-ended and fluid. Here, on the main floor, permanent and special displays in the galleries—appropriately styled in New England Classical manner — seem to run into each other, so it doesn’t matter much which way one meanders. Somewhere in the middle, Rockwell’s “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” (1950) is on view here on a long-term loan agreement from the Los Angeles Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, after its controversial deaccessioning by the Berkshire Museum of Art.
The painting, which conveys Rockwell’s admiration for historical and modernist “fine artists” with its highly illusionistic space and hidden geometries, left a lasting impression as a tour de force. It is mesmerizingly meticulous, and, as with virtually all his paintings, it relates to a corresponding Saturday Evening Post cover concept. While Rockwell exhibited his paintings intermittently, he sold relatively few in his lifetime, prioritizing translations to lucrative print media; thus, the cache he had in store for posterity here.
Several of the museum’s galleries absorbed a portion of “Imagining Freedom,” a more extensive previous exhibition. It stars Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms,” a series of four paintings that refers to President Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address. Rockwell created these compositions to be issued as posters sold for the war effort by subscription. Highly successful, this project established Rockwell’s ubiquity.
“Freedom from Want,” also known as “Thanksgiving,” benefits from the in-person viewing — the nuanced perspective that situates a viewer at the depicted dinner table. If imitation is the best form of flattery, this painting alone, which has been appropriated in visual culture as copiously as its precedent kin, Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” (1930), should secure Rockwell’s significant position in American art as well as visual culture.
Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want, 1942. Illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, March 6, 1943. Oil on canvas. (Courtesy: Norman Rockwell Museum Collection, Norman Rockwell Art Collection Trust, © 1943 SEPS: Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN).
Since the beginning of the new millennium, Rockwell has been associated by many younger viewers with current events related to the Civil Rights Movement. His turn to this subject matter led to a break with the Saturday Evening Post and an affiliation with the more forward-looking magazine, Look. Prominently, “The Problem we all Live with” (1963) has generated an enormous amount of brilliant academic, educational, and popular coverage in the past decade. The work was loaned to the White House during the Barack Obama administration, which, along with the activism of Ruby Bridges, whose seminal case of grade school integration in New Orleans inspired the painting, furthered its renown. Recently, its popularity was advanced once again, as it was referenced through the 2019 Democratic primaries in cartoons and memes commenting on Kamala Harris’s description of her similar experience with school bussing.
Norman Rockwell, The Problem We All Live With, 1963. Illustration for Look, January 14, 1964, pp. 22-23. Oil on canvas. (Courtesy: Norman Rockwell Museum Collection).
Standing in front of the painting was quite moving, despite its overwhelming familiarity.
Norman Rockwell, Murder in Mississippi, 1965. Unpublished illustration for Look. Oil on canvas. (Courtesy: Norman Rockwell Museum Collection © 1965 Norman Rockwell Family Agency).
His last works, featured in a separate gallery, are paintings and stark studies of murders of civil rights movement activists, several especially engaging for their loose renderings in the early stages. A long way from where he started, this presentation argues for Rockwell’s astute attention to the urgent, modern developments of his day.
Pops Peterson, The Problem Persists, 1964-2014, 2014. Digital print on canvas. (Courtesy: Collection of the artist © 2014 Pops Peterson. All rights reserved).
Topping off this stimulating excursion is an exhibition of photo-based works by Stockbridge artist Pops Peterson. Printed on canvas to simulate a slight impasto of Rockwell’s original paintings, Peterson’s works play on Rockwell’s icons. This artist brings us firmly into the Black Lives Matter era of widespread legal and social calls for real equality and diversity in America. For example, in “The Problem Persists, 1964-2014” (2014), Peterson updates the Ruby Bridges painting — to reflect on the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown by police and its aftermath in Ferguson. Another stand-out is “Freedom from What? I Can’t Breathe” (2015), in which a white family depicted in Rockwell’s “Freedom from Fear” is replaced by a black one, highlighting the particular concerns of African Americans when it comes to safety from home intruders. Finally, “Thanksgiving Gay Dinner (2014) is a peek into the artist’s own dining room. Ultimately, Rockwell seems to have initiated a vision for the country that is hopefully coming to fruition and probably would have appreciated and understood Peterson’s take.