A colorful retrospective

  • The illustrator poses amidst his works at Stockbridge's Old Corner House, which exhibited his paintings for 24 years before the move to a more spacious, new museum in 1993. Most will recognize one of his "Four Freedoms"paintings as well as actors Bing Crosby and Ann-Margret, whom he depicted in a poster for the 1966 remake of "Stagecoach." Contributed photo/Norman Rockwell Museum

  • Psychologist Erik Erikson, Norman Rockwell, Joan Erikson and the illustrator's wife Mollie in his Stockbridge studio in 1962. The building is now on the museum's grounds. Erikson was instrumental in unlocking many of the illustrator's personal dilemmas. Contributed photo/Norman Rockwell Family Agency—

  • The illustrator lived a full life. Born in the Victorian Era, he was raised when horses were the prime means of local transportation and lived to see, and paint, men on the Moon. “The Final Impossibility: Man’s Tracks on the Moon.”

  • Rockwell's work is known globally and his paintings have been exhibited throughout the world. A poster of this 1958 "Saturday Evening Post" cover can even be found in an Iraq police station. "The Runaway."

  • Two galleries, filled with images from 1969, commemorate the museum's 50th year. Several posters are from the late music impresario Bill Graham's private collection. Sixties posters flew in the face of conventional dictates, such as to be easily read from a distance.

For the Recorder
Published: 10/3/2019 9:20:35 AM
Modified: 10/3/2019 9:20:25 AM

Had it not been for a misguided mid-1960s urban renewal proposal to bulldoze a colonial-era building on Stockbridge’s Main Street, the Norman Rockwell Museum may not have been located in that photogenic New England town. Retail developers had The Old Corner House, adjacent to the town library, in their crosshairs. Three local women, aghast at the prospect, donated $5,000 apiece to form a corporation, creating a museum at the site. Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), who lived a short walk from the 1790 building, matched their donation and the building was saved.

Native American artifacts of the Mahican tribe, as well as the accouterments of its early white settlers, were on display. Visiting one day, the illustrator noted the blankness of many walls and suggested that he could hang some of his paintings there.

“It wasn’t long before people weren’t looking at the little historical stuff,” Henry Williams, a former museum trustee, said in a commemorative video, “They were looking at those pictures.” 

Attendance skyrocketed from just a few dozen to more than 1,000 people daily. For docents, this required an elegant choreography, moving some 25 people per room, in a counter-clockwise fashion, to other galleries as another two-dozen entered through the front door. It wasn’t chaotic, but cramped, and by 1969 the former residence became The Norman Rockwell Museum. 

“That is (why) I say it was a museum founded by accident,” Williams concluded. “That’s how it all started.” 

The crowds wouldn’t stay away. Main Street parking overflowed and the building was becoming shopworn. There was an impetus to find a new site. Following a $5 million fundraising campaign, a nine-gallery museum, designed by Robert Stern, was built just two miles from its former location. Last year, it was visited by 134,000 people.

Recalling that distant 1969

Now through Oct. 27, you can experience an ambitious look, via videos and artwork, as to where America was a half-century ago. This is in tandem with a study of the relationship between the illustrator and the psychiatrist Erik Erikson as well as an exhibit of Rockwelliana, of both his familiar and little known works.

“There’s a lot more depth to the man than people realize,” curator Jesse Kowalski said of the illustrator. “It’s beyond kids fishing and puppy dogs. He was married three times. He had his own issues and he was a workaholic.” 

Kowalski has filled two galleries with landmarks of 1969 and answers the question, where on this planet would you find the original Cookie Monster? 

All in blue fuzz, with eternally surprised Ping-Pong ball eyes and now a youthful 50, you’ll find the original used by Frank Oz from “Sesame Street’s” first day. Accompanying texts explain that the concept of educating preschoolers was pioneered by PBS TV producer Joan Ganz Cooney. She approached the Carnegie Corporation with the idea, and within a short amount of time, characters with backbones of foam rubber, animated cartoons and charming humans were winning Emmys.

Some members of the Mississippi State Commission for Educational Children, however, were not amused and the show was taken off the air in that state. A notice read that they were “very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children.” 

You can’t, however, keep foam rubber down. Viewers protested and within 22 days the ban was lifted.

You’ll also find an early screenplay owned by director Dennis Hopper of his marijuana-fueled biker film, “Easy Rider.” A critic said the movie left no turn unstoned, yet, for a measly $400,000 investment it grossed $60 million worldwide. This flipped movie studio tables and from that time forward smart independent directors were the bee’s knees.

Nearby are dreamlike psychedelic posters from the estate of the late music impresario Bill Graham as well as an album cover of bluesmen Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper painted by Rockwell.

For total immersion, added to the reminiscences is a four-hour smorgasbord of 1960s TV images from the kitschy and bizarre to the sublime.

A social conscience

Despite Rockwell’s stellar success as, without doubt, America’s favorite illustrator, he was plagued with disharmony. Among his crises was the marriage to his second wife Mary Barstow. The family’s move to Stockbridge in 1953 was to facilitate treatment at the Austen Riggs Center for her depression and alcoholism. 

Psychologist Erik Erikson, who coined the term “identity crisis,” provided therapy for Mary, and later for Norman. He told the illustrator that, although he painted happy scenes, he himself was unhappy. 

As author Deborah Solomon wrote, “He was certainly not painting his own reality but was painting, I think, his longing.” She’s the author of the 2013 biography “American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell.” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 512 pages. $17.78)  

The illustrator’s complaint was that he “got all tied up in knots.” Prone to depression and self-doubt, Erikson freed Rockwell from these black spells and encouraged him to paint those issues with which he was most concerned. 

The two became friends and Rockwell later wrote that “All that I am, all that I hope to be, I owe to Mr. Erikson.”  

Despite at times creating saccharine images, Rockwell also had a strong social conscience. Yet, the national magazine most associated with his work, The Saturday Evening Post had a policy that African-Americans could only be depicted as employed in service jobs. 

In his first commission for Look magazine, his painting is of a six-year-old black girl escorted by federal marshals on her way to a recently integrated school in New Orleans. She walks past a tomato-stained wall, a damning slur scrawled nearby.

In 1965, he created an arrestingly graphic image illustrating the murder of three Civil Rights workers by white supremacists in Philadelphia, Mississippi. 

When he was commissioned by the Bureau of Reclamation to paint the recently finished Glen Canyon Dam, he was studious in visiting the site and learned that it encroached upon sacred tribal lands. 

His painting shows a Navajo family viewing the structure in resignation.

“Rockwell didn’t have to worry about garnering favor from anyone,” museum curator Tom Daly said of the canvas. “He put out an opinion that he felt strongly about.” 

It’s been said that the illustrator was as American as apple pie; however, that could be amended to say that he was as American as baseball. During our visit, Daly had lectured attendees about Rockwell’s ardor for the game. Of some 4,000 images credited to the pipe-smoker, there are hundreds of paintings of baseball players.

The curator explained that as a boy, Rockwell was no athlete. However, he would attend neighborhood games and sketch the other kids. His drawings were so popular that the innings wouldn’t begin until the teams were assured that he would depict them at play.

Rockwell’s images are known throughout the world and touring exhibits of his work have been held as far away as Japan. The illustrator himself spent a month in Russia in 1963, demonstrating his technique to Moscow art lovers. Today at the museum you can view autographed copies of his well-known Four Freedoms paintings while the canvases themselves are currently in France during the D-Day commemorations.

You can even find a Rockwell poster in a Middle East police station.

Daly noted that a few years ago a U.S. Army officer was training Iraqi police officer recruits in Fallujah. The American had brought a poster of a 1958 Norman Rockwell cover from The Saturday Evening Post. 

“The Runaway” depicts a luncheonette where a heavyset state police officer exchanges glances with a small boy who has doubtless lost his romance with the road and is ready to return home. Knowing he’s hungry, the officer is buying him lunch. The cook looks on knowingly. 

Daly said that the Army officer attached the poster to a wall and told the recruits “This is what police work is really all about.” 

“Woodstock to the Moon, 1969 Illustrated”; “Inspired: Norman Rockwell and Erik Erikson” and Rockwell’s “Private Moments for the Masses” continue through Oct. 27. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Admission: Ages 18 and under, free; Active military and public school teachers w/i.d., free; Adults $20; College students with identification, $10. 

Don Stewart is a freelance writer who lives in Plainfield. He has written for the Greenfield Recorder since 1994.

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