Sunday, October 27, 2013

How quaint! Or was it? Visiting Norman Rockwell

View from the current position of Rockwell's studio.
One morning Dear Adviser (DA) and I visited the Norman Rockwell Museum. Rockwell moved to Stockbridge in 1953 so his second wife, Mary Barstow, could be treated at the Austen Riggs Center. Here Rockwell found the small-town America that made him so famous on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. He had trained in illustration at a couple different art schools and had even been hired at the tender age of 17 as art director of Boys' Life, the Boy Scout magazine. Rockwell was apparently so over-the-moon when he got his first commission with the Saturday Evening Post in 1916 that he proposed to his first wife, Irene O'Connor. They lived a socialite life in New Rochelle, New York, until his work made him so busy that the lack of foundation for their relationship broke up the marriage in 1930. While recuperating in California, Rockwell met Mary. They married and had three sons, Jarvis, Thomas, and Peter--all artists of various kinds now. After her early death in 1959, he married his third wife, Mary Punderson.

Rockwell prepared for a museum for his illustrations before his death. He even arranged to have his studio moved (in two pieces) from the lot next to his house down to the spot chosen for the future museum. The museum's administrative offices are located in the original dwelling on the property, the old Linwood House, a Berkshire "cottage" built in 1859 that looks like a Victorian mansion in light-colored stone with hunter-green shutters and a gray roof. That building is not open to the public. The museum built a new, two-story building set into a hillside for the rotating collection of paintings on the upper floor. On the lower floor you can watch a short film about Rockwell and see all 322 Saturday Evening Post covers he painted over 47 years.

That's Norman in the bottom row,
2nd and 3rd from the right.
DA and I were surprised to discover how much he relied on life studies, including costumes, props, and photographs (see right). I guess that makes sense, since he was an illustrator--that is, someone who illustrated or depicted what he saw in real life. We were also surprised to learn that it was Rockwell who ended his relationship with the Post: we had taken him for a conservative, a traditionalist out to preserve white small-town America, but in fact his politics were liberal and increasingly so over the late 1950s and into the 1960s. One of his unpublished Post covers, "The Marriage Counselor," depicts a (white, heterosexual) couple waiting on the couch outside the therapist's office: he has a black eye. Rockwell wanted to paint about the racial turmoil in the country, but the editors wanted him to do portraits of the famous men of the day. He probably would have been put out of business sooner or later by improved technology for publishing photographs.

One of Rockwell's most beloved pieces is his "Golden Rule" painting, which seems to sum up his worldview. Apparently he looked for models among the tourists who came through town in the summer, since Stockbridge was (and largely still is) mono-racial. I'd like to think he was hampered only by the material he had to work with and not by his ideas, that this is the world he wanted to illustrate but couldn't find.

Erik Erikson reputedly once told Rockwell during therapy that he painted the happiness he wasn't living, and a controversial new biography using his medical records reveals that Rockwell was psychologically troubled and even suggests he may have been a repressed homosexual. Does that make his paintings more or less optimistic? At any rate, they are extraordinarily popular. (In fact, one may have just been stolen from a warehouse in New York.) Maybe his most iconic images were never attainable. They certainly aren't at the prices expected at Sotheby's auction in December, when "Saying Grace" might command $24 million dollars.

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