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The Fine Art of Illustration at The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts

Stockbridge's Chime Tower

On a recent cold winter's day, my cousin Amy, oldest daughter Amanda, and I set out for the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts and the idyllic New England town of Stockbridge to pay a visit to the Norman Rockwell Museum which was founded in 1969 and dedicated to "the enjoyment and study of Rockwell’s work and his contributions to society, popular culture, and social commentary."

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The museum traces it roots to the late 1960s, when Rockwell, a native New Yorker who moved from Arlington, Vermont to Stockbridge in 1953 and lived his last 25 years there, established a trust to preserve his artistic legacy by placing his works in the custodianship of the Old Corner House Stockbridge Historical Society, later to become Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge. For its first twenty-four years, the museum was located at the Old Corner House on Stockbridge’s Main Street, a building that Rockwell and other townspeople helped preserve and which provided 3,000 square feet of exhibition space.

The popularity of a museum dedicated to Norman Rockwell was never in doubt as the Old Corner House attracted 5,000 visitors in 1969, its first year of operation when it had only three Rockwell paintings in its collection. In 1973, Rockwell gave the museum 367 paintings, preliminary sketches and studies in pencil, charcoal, and oil which was followed three years later by the donation of his studio and its contents. By 1983, with upwards of 100,000 visitors a year coming to the museum, it had become apparent that a bigger building was needed so the museum's board agreed to acquire Linwood, an estate on the outskirts of town overlooking the Housatonic River Valley, for $500,000 and build a new museum there.

The Norman Rockwell Museum

Following fundraising that started off with a large donation from Rockwell collector and film director Steven Spielberg, in 1987 American architect Robert A.M. Stern took on the project of designing a building that could be considered suitably "Rockwellesque."  Stern, an appreciator of Rockwell's art who is also the Dean of the Yale University School of Architecture and whose other projects include the Master Plan for Times Square, New York City as well as the Harvard Law School and numerous endeavors for the Walt Disney Company, decided on a classic New England town hall design. The white-clapboard building with its quintessential cupolas was built at the cost of $4.4 million and faces a lawn that is very reminiscent of a New England town green.

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The $9.2 million museum complex on 36 acres which is located about two miles from downtown Stockbridge, celebrated its Grand Opening on June 12, 1993 and today, houses the largest collection of Norman Rockwell art in the world with more than 500 paintings and drawings and an archive of 100,000 items, including letters and business documents.  In addition to its permanent Rockwell Collection, the museum also offers changing exhibits from other artists who were inspired by Rockwell and excel in the best of American illustration.

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Upon entering the museum and paying the cost of admission, you have the choice of starting your tour in the galleries on the main floor or heading down to the second level for the exhibits there. There are Gallery Orientation Talks available free with the cost of admission where expert gallery guides introduce you to the art and life of Norman Rockwell and the special highlights of the museum collection. The Talks are offered at 11 a.m., 1:00 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Additionally, if you'd like to pay a little extra ($5 for adults, $4 for kids, seniors and Museum members) there are pre-recorded audio tours available.

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Unless otherwise specified, non-flash photography is permitted in the galleries so I'm able to give you a good look at what you can get a good look at when you visit yourself.  Trust me, the artwork is totally amazing in person when you can get a really close look at all of the detail that Rockwell put into his illustrations - and he put in a lot!

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Several galleries display highlights from the museum's permanent Normal Rockwell Collection including:

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Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit (God Bless Us Everyone), an oil on canvas painting which appeared as the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on December 15, 1934

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Thanksgiving: Mother and Son Peeling Potatoes which appeared as the cover illustration of the Saturday Evening Post on November 24, 1945 as the end of World War II neared

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Apparently too controversial at that time, Rockwell's 1963 illustration, Marriage Counselor, was intended for The Saturday Evening Post but was never published; it was offered to Ladies Home Journal in 1972 but went unpublished then, too.

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Saying Grace, a 1951 painting which graced the November 24th cover of The Saturday Evening Post, was inspired by a scene that was witnessed by a woman in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania who then wrote to Rockwell about it.  It is the only cover illustration that didn't come from an idea of his own or something that Rockwell witnessed personally.

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The museum's central gallery - which you can just see above to the left of the photo - is located directly under the large, lantern-shaped cupola in the middle of the slate roof which provides it with lots of natural light. The gallery is dedicated to Norman Rockwell's paintings which illustrate the Four Freedoms defined by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a speech he gave in 1942. In addition to Freedom From Fear which can just be glimpsed in the above photo (and which I neglected to get another shot of) are:

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The four illustrations, which Rockwell said, were "serious paintings which sucked the energy right out of me, leaving me dazed and thoroughly weary", did more than their part for the war effort as they raised nearly $133 million in war-bond purchases.  The paintings were done over a period of seven months during which time Rockwell lost 15 pounds.

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In another gallery is one of my favorite paintings entitled Norman Rockwell's 78th Spring (Springtime in Stockbridge).  Apparently Rockwell and his third wife Molly routinely biked around town and this painting depicts just that.  One of the nicest things about it is that if you look at Stockbridge today, it doesn't look much different than it did in 1971 when Rockwell painted this piece plus I love the way that he used the tree branches in the frame much like I do with a lot of my photographs!

Norman Rockwell's Bicycle

Just to the right of the painting depicting Rockwell riding his bicycle is his bicycle!  

Stockbridge circa 1967

Another great painting of Stockbridge is the 1967 Home For Christmas (Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas) which was done for McCall's magazine.  Having just driven through Stockbridge on our way to the museum, it was really nice to see that it really hadn't changed much at all - just like the painting above from 1971. The Old Corner House, which became the home of the first Norman Rockwell Museum two years after the painting was completed, stands at the left border of the painting.

During our visit, the lower level held an exhibition by Mary-Amy Cross, Rockwell's second cousin who was also an artist and whom he occasionally used as a model in some of his paintings when she was visiting. Mary-Amy illustrated books for children, designed cards for the Norcross Greeting Card Company, and explored the medium of watercolor in personal works that reflected her love of nature, travel, and the act of painting.

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In the display above are some of the sea rocks that Mary-Amy painted to look like other things - it was more or less a specialty of hers and they looked great!  She didn't change the shape of the rocks at all, just adapted her paintings to the shapes that were already there.

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This was my favorite painting by Mary-Amy Cross in the exhibit.  You can't really tell looking at it here but the texture was marvelous and really added to the overall look and feel of the painting.

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Also on the lower level can be found Norman Rockwell’s 323 Saturday Evening Post Covers; the exhibition contains original Saturday Evening Post cover tear sheets featuring each of Norman Rockwell’s illustrations for the publication created between 1916 and 1963.

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In addition to the covers, there is also a short video on the life of Norman Rockwell which plays on a continuous loop and tells you a bit about the man who drew all of the art that surrounds you.  It's definitely worth a watch!

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On the walls are a lot of illustrations - many of which I'm sure visitors will recognize right away!  

Rockwell's Very First Saturday Evening Post Cover

Boy With Baby Carriage was Rockwell's very first cover for The Saturday Evening Post on May 20, 1916.

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Baseball fans are sure to recognize these two!  The Dugout appeared on September 4, 1948 and Game Called Because of Rain (Tough Call) graced the cover on April 23, 1949. 

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Boy on High Dive made a splash on August 16, 1947 and as someone who used to have a deathly fear of the high dive, I can certainly appreciate that young man's position! 

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Boy and Girl Gazing at Moon (Puppy Love) or alternately Spooners is probably recongnizable to almost everyone who's ever heard of Norman Rockwell! It appeared on The Saturday Evening Post cover on April 24, 1926.

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Another of my favorites is The Runaway which appeared on September 20, 1958.  Maybe it appeals to me so much because it only missed my birthday by 11 days or maybe it's because I've always had a soft spot for cops and soda fountains!

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At 2:30 p.m. on the first Friday of each month, visitors to the Norman Rockwell Museum get the chance to meet one of his former models who gives a gallery talk on what it was like to pose and work with the artist.  The gal above was one of those models but as we were downstairs looking at The Saturday Evening Post covers when she started her talk, I have no idea which model she was.  Oops!

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Like pretty much any museum these day, there's a very nice Museum Store which is open daily whenever the museum itself is open.  If you can't get to the museum but would like to check out their store, you can order items online here. Amanda, who is the artist in the family, was quite impressed with the selection of artist's tools available and she tells me that the prices were quite reasonable also!

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Though it wasn't open during our visit, Amy and I decided to take a walk out to the site of Norman Rockwell's Stockbridge Studio which was moved to the museum grounds in 1986.  To get to the studio, visitors follow a path under a pergola and then past the former Linwood House which now serves as the Administration Building for the museum.

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I found a brief history of Linwood House in an article from the Stockbridge Arts & Entertainment News:
In 1858 retired New York attorney Charles E. Butler purchased 80 acres and began building a year-round home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The estate property held an inspiring view overlooking the Housatonic River, and in 1859 Linwood, one of the first Berkshire "cottages," was completed. Butler, a member of the prestigious law firm of Butler, Evarts, Southmayd, and Choate, was one of the most highly respected nineteen-century New York lawyers. Linwood House was next door to Butler's partner's estate, Southmayd, and from the front door of Linwood, Mr. Butler could look across the valley and see Naumkeag, the "cottage" of his junior partner, Mr. Choate.
Linwood House was built out of unpolished marble (quarried locally in the Berkshires), and its overall design is Hudson River Gothic, a style popularized by the architect Calvert Vaux in his book Villas and Cottages, published in 1857. The estate descended through several generations of the Butler family, each using the property in their own ways: as a working farm, a gentleman's farm and as a peafowl farm. The home eventually became the property of Percy Musgrave, Jr. and his family. Son F. Story Musgrave grew up to become an astronaut and the first physician chosen by NASA for the space program. Percy Musgrave's widow, Josephine Cary Musgrave, eventually sold Linwood House and the 40 acres to the Norman Rockwell Museum in 1983. The Museum later donated four acres of the property to the Laurel Hill Association, the nation's oldest land preservation organization. The Linwood grounds provide a spacious setting for the new Norman Rockwell Museum, which opened its doors on June 12, 1993.
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"Summer Cottage"??  Okay, sure!  Call it what you may, it's a wonderful piece of architecture and it boasts a pretty nice view across the Housatonic River Valley, too! Granted, we were there on an alternately sunny/snow-flurry kind of day but it's still a nice view!

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Down the lawn and a little to the right is Rockwell's Stockbridge Studio which is open seasonally May through November 11th from 10:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

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Though the artist used twenty studios over the course of his career, Rockwell called this one, originally located in the backyard of his house on South Street, his "best studio yet."  In 1976 he bequeathed the building and its contents to the Norman Rockwell Museum.

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 For years, the museum kept the studio as it was when Rockwell died but they have recently changed it to reflect his career in October 1960 so that visitors can see how it was when he was working on his painting The Golden Rule.

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The Norman Rockwell Museum is open daily year-round with the exception of Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Years Day. For their normal hours of operation and admission prices, including ticket packages, be sure to visit their Hours and Admissions Page. Located at 9 Glendale Road (Route 183) in Stockbridge, you can also contact the museum via phone at 418-293-4100 or email them with any questions you may have.

No matter how many birthdays you've had, both young and old alike will find something in the Norman Rockwell Museum that is sure to make them smile. "I paint life as I would like it to be," Norman Rockwell once said and I think he did it in a way that perhaps the rest of us would like it to be also. I'm sure we could all use a little "Rockwell" in our lives from time to time and his museum in Stockbridge - a town that Rockwell said was "... the best of America, the best of New England" - is certainly a great way to get some!

Comments

  1. I bet that was a fun day. Normal Rockwell perfectly captured America! His work is a national treasure.

    ReplyDelete
  2. NR was born at exactly the right time for his talent! Every piece is endearing and evocative. Do you know that I have never been to Stockbridge? That's gotta be some kind of sin, right?

    ReplyDelete

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