My mother’s favorite artist was Norman Rockwell.
Growing up, this embarrassed me to no end.
He just wasn’t hip enough for my sensibilities.
During high school, my bedroom walls featured thumb-tacked posters of Klimt’s The Kiss, Picasso’s Hand with Flowers (such an ironic title, so clever) and whatever M.C. Escher thing was in vogue at the time.
I pretended to find meaning in Mark Rothko, tacking Red, Orange, Tan and Purple over my bed.
The hallway in our house was lined with her Norman Rockwell plates, which she collected and treasured, saving the boxes and all the written documentation inside.
I scoffed at these even as she opened the new ones we ordered for her every Christmas.
How could she like this pedestrian illustration and call it art?
I remember once telling her she could just cut out photos from a magazine and tape them to the wall, it would be the same thing.
Aren’t you sad you didn’t know me then?
After she died, I inherited all the Rockwell prints, plates and books.
One afternoon when I was cleaning out her house, I sat in her chair and paged through the Rockwell book she kept next to it.
It’d been years since I’d even noticed any of the prints on the wall, they literally had blended into the background along with all the other odds and ends in this house she’d lived in for over 40 years.
Looking at the book, I saw illustrations and paintings of Norman Rockwell’s that I’d never seen before. I had no idea about his amazing gifts as a painter, where he was from, or that his work was done from photos taken of the people who lived around him.
(I’d also learned, post high school, to appreciate illustrators. A lot.)
I noted that I should look into this some more some time. And I didn’t get rid of the books or the plates, packing them away with the other things of hers I saved.
A few weeks ago, we took a road trip to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, to the Norman Rockwell Museum.
I somehow felt like going there for my mom, since she never did.
We left the Catskills and headed to the Berkshires. (pronounced Berk-sheers, you sillies)
Happily, the museum’s not in some steel-sided hut along the thruway.
It’s in this gorgeous setting:
I took those photos walking around the site, the day was spectacular.
As we approached the museum itself, we were greeted by a smiling gentleman in a blue blazer, sitting on a bench. In reply to our how are you, he said “Great, now that you’re here!”
We found out later that as a kid he’d posed for a photo that became one of Rockwell’s paintings.
The museum is in a beautiful, light-filled building, and as soon as we walked into one of the galleries, I was struck by how large the paintings are. Here’s a shot of a gallery from the museum’s website, just to give you an idea of size.
The first thing I saw, before any paintings, were the faces of the people looking at them. People were looking at the work as if they were seeing an old friend, an old friend they loved very much. Smiles of recognition, laughter, and awe were all around me. I’ve never seen this at a museum before. No one had that look of, “I’m pretending to like this, but I haven’t a clue what it means.”
The first painting I saw was The Problem We All Live With, 1964.
To my complete surprise, tears immediately sprung to my eyes as I stood in front of this. It was the detail. The care that had been taken to show every nuance of this afternoon in American history: the girl’s pristine white dress, shoes and socks, the ruler she carried, the determination on her face, all painted with Rockwell’s incredibly sure hand and amazing sense of detail. I’d seen this image many times, but how had I never noticed the tomatoes?
I now understood Norman Rockwell as the brilliant American historian he was, capturing every shade of what it is that makes us who we are.
These were some of my other favorites.
A bonus for us on this visit was the gallery displaying Rockwell’s movie posters. They’re displayed with some of the original oil paintings beside them.
The painting of Jennifer Jones, below, is breathtaking. Combined with the graphics on the movie poster, it makes a stunning package. If only movie posters still looked like this.
After seeing his work, a opportunity to visit his actual studio on the grounds was icing on the cake. The studio is set up to look just the way it did when he was painting what’s on the easel, recreated from photographs. The detail again is incredible, down to what’s playing on the radio.
An informative guide/docent who clearly loves his work can answer any/all questions about the studio.
An additional gallery was offering the work of William Steig, which in itself would have been enough to get me to visit. Another bonus!
The museum has a great education program, classes for kids, and all sorts of on-going events.
The gorgeous setting for this collection of American treasures couldn’t be more perfect.
My mom would have loved it.