Norman Rockwell in the Berkshire Mountains
We are starting to head north to the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, and we can see trees are starting to change color.
The small town of Stockbridge surrounds us on both sides, suddenly, I feel like I’m driving into a vintage postcard. This town was first settled by English missionaries in the 1700s, and many of the original houses still exist today giving this place a feeling from the past.
There is no denying the natural beauty of this place. As fall is quickly approaching, we are watching the changing of the leaves in this beautiful part of the world. The historic Red Lion Inn and the surrounding buildings on Main Street are still intact after 250 years.
The Red Lion Inn has been operating since the 18th century. With its wide, welcoming porch with rocking chairs, it invites guests to come on in and set- a-spell. The famous Red Lion crest was to symbolize the British crown, the green tail waving tail, a show of sympathy for American independence. Decorated like your grandma’s living room, it’s the coziest place in town. It was just a year later that America declared their independence.
Five presidents have been guests at the Inn (Cleveland, McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt), and celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, John Wayne, Bob Dylan, Tony Bennett, and Billy Joel have also checked in. It seems like everyone wants to experience that intimate town feel from the past.
With a population of less than 2,000, this is indeed small town America, where time has not touched it in a few hundred years. I’m expecting Sheriff Andy Taylor, Opie and Aunt Bea from Mayberry to come walking down the streets at any minute.
One of the reasons this Main Street is so famous is because of one of its local residents, Norman Rockwell, one of the greatest American illustrators of American culture in history called this home for the last twenty-five years of the life, and none of the buildings have changed.
The Norman Rockwell Museum here holds holds the largest and greatest collection of original paintings and drawings by this amazing artist. In his 70 years of painting, he created over 4,000 pieces of work of which more than 1,000 are here, along with 100,000 personal effects.
He always knew he wanted to be artist. At age 14, he began to study art. By age 16, he was hired as the art director for Boy’s Life Magazine, the official publication for the Boy Scouts of America, and he painted many of its covers…so much success at such a young age!
At age 22, he painted his first cover for the Saturday Evening Post, the magazine he considered ” the greatest show window in America.” Over the next 47 years, he would paint 321 covers for the magazine.
Norman Rockwell’s work reflected the small town American life. He did not consider himself a great artist, but more of an illustrator. He said of his work “Without thinking too much about it in specific terms, I was showing the America I know and observed to others who might not have noticed.” This is the America he loved and painted.
Being a bit of an artist myself, I found his process and technique pretty fascinating. All of the people in his paintings were people that he knew. He started with photographs, which became drawings, which were then drawn completely in charcoal first, and finally became full color illustrations. When his town was small, his models were his neighbors, the mailman, the store clerk, the barber, the kids next door. If you lived in Stockbridge, perhaps you could have been immortalized into a Rockwell painting!
In 1963, after working with them for 47 years, the painter ended his association with the Saturday Evening Post and began a ten year partnership with Look Magazine. It was a time of great controversy in the world, and Rockwell’s work reflected the interests of what Americans were dealing with…war, prejudice, civil rights, and poverty. It was some of his most profound work, and standing in front of these pieces of art makes you engage with a mixture of emotions, feeling the changing tide in America.
Moving Day depicts the integration of Chicago’s Park Forest suburban community. The kids examine each other with curiosity. Cat meets dog, and baseball gloves on both sides show that before you know it, they will all be friends. The face appearing from behind a window curtain, however, make us wonder how the adults will react.
This painting shows Ruby Bridges, a 6-year-old African-American girl en route to an all-white public school in New Orleans in 1960, escorted by US Marshals. A racial slur is written on the wall along with a splattered tomato. This powerful painting became an iconic image of the civil rights movement.
Norman Rockwell was a photographer as well as a director, working with his models and camera to orchestrate the action to get exactly what he had in mind for his paintings.
For those of you familiar, this painting with its intimate interior and luminous light in the background amid a darkened foreground is a nod to the famous Dutch master painters. Painted at the height of his fame, Norman Rockwell’s Shuffleton’s Barbershop is a beautiful masterpiece. Long since closed to customers, this darkened barbershop bathes the trio of musicians playing in the back room in a golden light. One of his buddies was an avid fisherman, and you can see a lot of fishing details painted in the darkened room.
Rich in both content and style, Shuffleton’s Barbershop shows his mastery of his medium, his art historical influences, and his unparalleled ability to tell a complex story in one image.
It has been purchased by George Lucas for his Museum of Narrative Art which will opening in Los Angeles in 2022. I’m so glad I got to see it here before it moved! It was purchased for it’s ability to show the power and significance of visual storytelling. George Lucas purchased it for close to $30 million. Whew!
Speaking of small towns, who knew that in this little spot, I would meet a long lost relative. My grandfather’s brother’s daughter lives here, and happens to be a member of the Rockwell Museum, and visits often. She hasn’t seen me since I was three years old. She looks a bit like my Auntie Gladys, my mom’s sister.
She knew Ruby Bridges, the little girl in the painting above, and she is friends with Norman Rockwell’s son. I guess that’s what it’s like growing up in a small town.
When Norman Rockwell passed away, his entire studio was moved to this location where his museum is, where you can see where he created so many of his amazing works of art.
On the easel in his studio remains one of his most powerful pieces he painted for the cover of Look Magazine. The Golden Rule shows a grouping of men, women, and children of different races, religions, and ethnicities, with a simple phrase “Do Unto Others as You Would Have Them Do Unto You,” a universal phrase from the Bible that reflected his belief and hopefully all those here who still remain.
PS – If you’re interested in learning more about one of the famous Dutch master painters, check out the movie “Tim’s Vermeer,” an amazing movie you can find on Netflix or Amazon Prime. It shows how they think Johannes Vermeer created his incredible paintings with his mastery of light and realism. (Girl with the Pearl Earring for example) It was totally fascinating and worth a look.