The Norman Rockwell Museum

The Norman Rockwell Museum

Today (8/4/14) is our first full day in Massachusetts. We had arranged to meet distant relatives of ours that mom had met on ancestry.com. Since the town where they lived was very close to the Norman Rockwell Museum, we decided to go there as well. It is one spot I definitely recommend!

We started off in the lower level of the museum. Here on display are the 320 something Saturday Evening Post Covers painted by Rockwell. I can’t even imagine how much work went into this much artistry! It shows an incredible amount of variety, but also allows the viewer to take a stroll through American history, chronicling such events as the popularity of cars, the US involvement in WWII, basic American life, the Civil Rights movement, JFK…the list goes on. Amazing! The lower level also boasts a biographical movie of Rockwell’s life narrated by his son Peter. It explains his personal life and three marriages, plus his artistic career. Very much worth watching.

Family Tree

Family Tree

From there, we went upstairs to the Gallery tour. This 11:00 tour is well worth the price of admission ($17.50 with no discounts–lower depending on being a child, senior, or student) Our tour guide gave us the information I love best–personal details about the artist and his family which are not common knowledge.

One thing I was unaware of is how many pictures include members of Rockwell’s family. From “The Critic” which features his wife Mary Rockwell as the lady in the portrait and son Jarvis as the critic, to “The Train ride” featuring son Peter, to the “Freedom From Want” with his wife Mary and his mother, Rockwell utilizes his “free models” often. But, he often reused other models as well. The first portrait he sold to the Saturday Evening Post features 3 boys, which are all the same model. The “Family Tree” features the same male model throughout–even as Rockwell’s Preacher self-portrait’s wife! Rockwell also kept his models on their toes by casting them in non-traditional roles. For example, the Rabbi in “The Golden Rule” is Irish Catholic, while the Catholic in “Freedom to Worship” is a Methodist. He even incorporated famous people like Abraham Lincoln as one of the models for the standing man in the “Freedom of Speech.”

Another fun story is the story of the Four Freedoms themselves.

Freedom of Worship

Freedom of Worship

Rockwell was concerned with the war effort but considered himself too old to enlist. Wanting to help and inspired by Roosevelt’s speech on the freedoms Americans needed to fight to protect, he decided to create a portrait for each of the Four Freedoms. He went to Washington to offer these to the Government. After being shafted around from office to office, the government finally rejected his offer. Needless to say, Rockwell was crushed. Here he is trying to DONATE something to help the war effort, and the government won’t let him. He shared the problem with the Saturday Evening Post who decided to run the Portraits inside their issues. The portraits were wildly popular and attracted the attention of the government who suddenly saw their way clear to accept Rockwell’s work. While touring to raise money for war bonds, the “Four Freedoms” raised $132,000,000 for the war effort. An exorbitant sum of money!

Another cool fact we learned on the tour is the legacy of Rockwell’s artistry in his own children. Son Jarvis is a painter in his own right. Though an incredible portrait painter like his father, he has moved more in the direction of modern art. Tom, Rockwell’s middle son, expresses his artistry in writing. I was amazed to learn that Tom Rockwell is the same Tom Rockwell that authored the best selling How to Eat Fried Worms! Norman’s youngest son Peter is a sculptor who now resides in Rome, Italy. The various sculptures around the museum property were contributed by Peter.

Rockwell's Studio

Rockwell’s Studio

From the museum, we took the path down to the studio. This is Rockwell’s last studio, moved from his home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. It contains many original artifacts, but two were favorites of mine. The first is the “Humility helmet.” Rockwell had bought this at an antique store in Paris after being told it was ancient. He found out the next day during a fire that the entire French Fire Department wore them. He kept it as a reminder to stay humble. The second is a burned out bucket. Because Rockwell smoked pipes while he worked, he kept a bucket beside him to dump ashes in. Unfortunately, this is also where he dumped other trash like oiled rags. Obviously, not a good combination. He started a number of fires this way, and was usually diligent to stamp out any embers. But, one time, he hadn’t been diligent enough and woke up to an incinerated studio. He kept the bucket to remind him to pay attention to details.

But, the most interesting thing to me was the fact that Rockwell had dropped out of school at 15. As a teacher, my commitment to education should be assumed, and yet, I firmly believe we have got it wrong with expecting every child to not just finish high school, but college as well. Yes, education has value, and every citizen needs a cursory knowledge of a variety of subjects. Yet, on the other hand, every person is different, and not everyone’s talents and abilities are fostered by traditional education.

Interior of the studio with the bucket and "the humility helmet"

Interior of the studio with the bucket and “the humility helmet”

While the work ethic of today’s youth is drastically different than those in previous eras, I still believe there are students I encounter daily who would be much better suited to an apprenticeship or a technical job than traditional book education. I think Rockwell is a shining example of just such a man.  To see more of his work without an onsite visit, check out http://www.nrm.org!

After an amazing voyage into the life of Norman Rockwell, we headed to Richmond, Massachusetts to connect with our distant cousins, the Bakers. Mom made a connection with the Bakers through ancestry.com, and we were excited for the opportunity to meet them and swap information on out Cheney ancestors. We spent an incredibly delightful afternoon, dining on homemade coffee cake and “Boston Harbor” tea (Be still my history-loving heart!) Mom and Mr. Baker told stories of what they knew of our history.

Mrs. Baker and I had other conversations. An unexpected connection to our morning was the discovery that Mrs. Baker had actually known Norman Rockwell and his family. I realized this by finding the more than suitable “Family Tree print” and a signed print of Rockwell’s Stockbridge in their “genealogy room.” One thing I love more than anything is the “behind the scenes” look at someone’s life, so this was a dream chance to hear about the real man. Mrs. Baker shared many memories about what wonderful people the Rockwells were. She recalled how she never saw Norman drive a car.

Bakers and Beauty

Bakers and Beauty

He rode a bike everywhere he went or rode with his wife Molly. Because Rockwell was good friends with the Pastor of the church where she worked, he would often stop by. Karen said they sounded like a couple of school boys giggling, and when Norman left, the Pastor would talk about how badly his stomach hurt from laughing so hard. “He was a hoot!” She shared. She also explained that many of his child models still live in town. They shared how hard it was for them to pose with Norman making faces, cracking jokes, and generally laughing the whole time. In one article I read, a child model explained he would do that to get them to make a certain face for him, knowing instinctively just what antics would elicit the desired response. And, it is precisely this understanding of people which allowed Rockwell to capture so much of the American experience and find humor in it all.

We had a delightful afternoon enjoying conversation, company, history (one of the Baker ancestors liberated Dachau), architecture (their house is over 200 years old!), and beauty (Mrs. Baker was the number one perennial distributor in this area and has a breathtaking garden!) We’re looking forward to seeing them again on Saturday!

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