The Norman Rockwell Museum

Norman Rockwell, decades after his last Saturday Evening Post cover, remains an iconic American artist.

At their best, his paintings are painstakingly humanistic, highly evocative and masterfully rendered. Many today find his works almost in the realm of kitsch—but too often the critics will forget that Rockwell painted for a commercial market. He was an illustrator and a keen observer of the American scene of his day.

Today you can drive from Hudson to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in less than an hour. There you will find yourself confronting dozens of deeply affecting, highly realistic paintings that depict an America that seems to have left us—or perhaps never was, at least not for most of us.

Nothing is more characteristic of Rockwell than the combination of a highly realistic (if perhaps sentimentalized) setting plus lively, emotionally pitched figures configured in such a way that drives an instant narrative. Here is the artist himself, scratching his head as he confronts a deadline (facing a blank canvas). Here we see a young boy at a diner, his knapsack suggesting he has run away from home, talking to a rotund officer of the law and an amused man behind the counter. One gets the distinct sense that soon, the boy will be back with mom and dad.

Farther along are a young couple registering their marriage before an older, and somewhat unimpressed official in a small town probably not far from Stockbridge. The sun streams in behind them and if they look hopeful, the clerk seems, perhaps justifiably, jaded.

Here are the original canvases of his famous “Four Freedoms” tetrad, which were painted during World War Two more or less when he was at the height of his career and his influence. Most of us are probably familiar with the sumptuous Thanksgiving feast being served in “Freedom from Want”. “Freedom of Speech” today seems a little quaint, given the raucous and adversarial nature of public discourse today. “Freedom from Fear” is perhaps best understood in context, which is amply supplied by the headline on a newspaper Dad is holding while his American children quietly sleep: the words “Bomb” and “Horror” are clearly visible. The war in Europe was raging, but America, while fighting, was not itself under attack. “Freedom of Conscience” relates to worship and suggests a diverse community of worshipers that, today seems, if not quaint, at least a little bit hopeful. All of these illustrative masterworks show a command of both craft and narrative that has probably not been matched.

Later in his career, Rockwell confronted some of the darker issues of the day–in particular, the battle for civil rights in the early 1960s. A moving canvas called “What we all have to live with” shows a proud young African American girl being escorted to school by marshals–while the wall behind her is stained by the threatening splash of a tomato apparently just thrown by a disapproving miscreant not shown in the canvas.

But for the most part, Rockwell was noted for rather light-hearted, gently chiding depictions of mid-century American foibles. Scuffed shoes and innocence were as much his bailiwick as gossipy oldsters getting what they deserve. We even get to see the look on a boy’s face when his innocence is suddenly deflated, as he is shown having discovered a Santa outfit in Dad’s bottom drawer.

The museum is open 7 days a week, except for a few holidays, and in summer the terrace is open for refreshments. There is also a schedule of fascinating shows related to the art of illustration. In May that takes the form of a show about the works of the Hanna Barbera studios, from which have come both The Flintstones and Scooby Doo. On weekends there are lectures.

In addition, the Museum has relocated his in-town studio building to an attractive spot on the grounds overlooking the Berkshire Hills. This is the building in which Rockwell worked, but not the location. Still, you can get a sense of how he got things done: lots of reference materials, plenty of books about the great masters of the art of painting–and an ample work space. Out of this workshop came, it is said, over four thousand paintings over the course of some sixty-odd years–many of them having come to represent a certain version of America that, if it did in any way actually exist, certainly would have been worthy of respect–not to say admiration.

Racquel Roberts