Norman Rockwell collection; He painted us all

It looked like the end of a marvelous family outing, says David Wood. The car creeping off the Nantucket ferry was filled with tired kids, dogs, cats, plants, fishing gear, and all the other odds and ends that weekend trips are heir to, including a rowboat on the roof, and bicycles on the sides. Watching it pass, a stranger shook his head in wonder, turned and said, "Norman Rockwell ought to be here to paint that."

That, says Mr. Wood, indicates the reason for the late illustrator's popularity.

"I think he really painted a view of American life that most people knew without realizing they knew," he says. "Norman painted the little situations that people got themselves into and still do. I think people relate to these sorts of things. When people saw one of his pictures they'd recognize it. . . ."

David Wood was a friend of the artist for the last five years of Rockwell's life, and as director of the Old Corner House saw him nearly every day. The illustrator, who lived in Stockbridge from 1953 until his passing in 1978, gave several of his paintings as an added attraction, when he learned the Stockbridge Historical Society was having difficulty getting visitors to it. Now the society is the proud owner of over 200 Rockwell paintings, the largest collection of original Rockwell works in the world.

"I really don't subscribe to the nostalgia notion," says Mr. Wood. "The image that comes across is that was a better time -- everybody was well fed, we didn't have to worry about Afghanistan, or hostages, or increasing crises. But nostalgia doesn't take into account the fact that, yes, we did have other things to worry about at that time. I don't think Norman was painting nostalgia at all. I think he was just painting life as he saw it. . . ."

Art critics have never looked kindly on Norman Rockwell. It's understandable , says Mr. Wood. Norman Rockwell's work doesn't belong in the category of pure art.

"He didn't go into his studio, address his muse of inspiration, and then sit down and paint globs on canvas," says Mr. Wood. "He was doing commissions for magazines. He was really a commercial artist, an illustrator, and he made no bones about it. Some people faulted him for not being an artist, and he said, 'Well, that's not my field -- I don't do 'pure art.' . . .

"He didn't paint pictures of lily pads on a pond under a great summer sun because he liked lily pads under a summer sun. He basically painted a picture which had a story to it. . . . The picture was a whole production. Even in his simplest pictures he had a scenario, characters, props, costumes, lights, and he worked that way. He was a ham as far as acting was concerned. I told him many times, 'You really were a frustrated actor,' -- he'd get in the studio and say to his models, 'I want you to act so and so,' and the models would try. Then he'd say, 'No, no, not like that,' and he'd get in and show them himself."

the Corner House exhibit shows both his sense of humor and his love of people.

"He was very unassuming, and very low-key," says Mr. Wood. He liked people, and people liked him back. He had a tremendous sense of humor even with himself , which was very refreshing. He didn't take himself seriously at all."

One series of paintings done for a calendar company shows a group of young boys fishing, and playing baseball, basketball, and golf.Included in the group is a gawky, bespectacled youth one can't help but empathize with.

"I like to think there's more than a surface resemblance to Norman," says Mr. Wood with a bit of a grin. "He was given the nickname 'Moony' when he was a young boy because he wore spectacles. He was awkward, knock-kneed, pigeon-toed, and always said, 'My brother was the athlete. I was a real klutz.' Made no bones about it."

His 1960 "Triple Self-Portrait" is another example. It shows Norman Rockwell sitting in front of an easel, peering at his reflection in a mirror while working on a decidedly more flattering painting of himself.

"Norman felt he had to paint his self-portrait, as many artists did," says Mr. Wood. "He's painting out the unflattering details; his glasses have been removed; he's obviously going to do the best job he can. The paints and brushes on the floor are a decidely un-Rockwellian touch -- Norman was a compulsively neat person, but he put them there because he was convinced that everybody figured artists were messy. . . ."

An old Roman-looking helmet stuck on teh easel is a memento from a trip to Paris.

"When Norman was in Paris he saw the helmet in an antique shop and decided he wanted it. It cost a fair amount of money, but he finally convinced himself he should have a souvenir of Paris, so he bought his great antique helmet. The next day, when the Paris fire department came rushing down the street, he looked up, and all the Paris firemen were equipped with exactly the same helmet. He always kept that helmet. In fact it's still sitting on top of his easel. He kept it there as sort of an object lesson to himself."

Norman Rockwell refused to be overawed by his own importance or that of his work. Throughout much of his career that feeling was shared by many others. Most of his 4,000 paintings and drawings were created to be reproduced, and after the reproductions had been made there was no need to keep the originals. Some were destroyed; others given away or sometimes just lost in a publisher's office. "Looking Out to Sea," now a popular favorite, is a good example. Painted in 1924, it shows a sailor who's too old and a lad who is too young to go to sea, both watching a ship sail by. It was intended to be a foldout for a magazine.

"It wasn't one of Norman's favorites," says David Wood. "He sold the picture at one point for $200 to somebody up in Vermont, when he was living there. In 1953, after he had just moved here, she appeared one day with the picture and said, 'You know, I think I'd rather have the $200 than the picture. Will you give me back my money if I give you the picture?' So he said yes."

His most famous paintings, "The Four Freedoms," inspired by a speech by Franklin Roosevelt, met with virtually the same response in official Washington.

He had originally intended to do them for the War Department as his contribution, since he wasn't fighting, says Mr. Wood. The department didn't seem interested, so he did them for the Saturday Evening Post. After the Post printed them, the Office of War Information had them reproduced as posters, sending the actual paintings around the country on exhibit. "They sold over $ 100 million worth of war bonds," Mr. Wood adds.

If there's a small town charm to many of his pictures, it's because he wasn't afraid to use family and friends in his paintings. The 1948 Saturday Evening Post cover for the Christmas issue was a family painting, but also included fellow artist Grandma Moses (whom he had met and admired), and twin girls wearing red pinafores. Pointing to the girls, Mr. Wood reveals that there was actually only one girl, "but Norman liked her so much he decided to paint her twice."

At one point in his career he was waggishly referred to as "the third largest industry in Stockbridge," because of the number of local residents he used as models. But when he first moved to the small western Massachusetts town the residents weren't at all sure they wanted him there.

"They figured there would be more problems with security and tourists. Stockbridge has always had its share of famous people living in the area. Norman Mailer lived here for a few years, and there have been others," says Mr.Wood. "But . . . he fitted in very well. He walked down Main Street, got his hair cut, went to the shops, did the same things as everybody else. He didn't expect special treatment, didn't ask for any and didn't get any. And so, over a period of time the townspeople really came to accept him.

"In fact in the latter years, when we were having a lot of tourists coming here wanting to know where Norman lived and if they culd see him, the townspeople got rather defensive about protecting him. One visitor a couple summers ago told me she asked some townsperson on the street if he knew where Norman Rockwell lived, and he said, 'I never heard of the man.' I think it was a sense that Norman behaved very civilly, and they behaved very civilly back.

Indeed civility and gentleness permeate most of his work, and one can sense a decided effort to concentrate on what he felt the world should be.

"Somebody once said to him, 'You don't paint the sordid and the depraved and the wicked,' and he said, 'No, there's enough of that around. I prefer not to.' That's a choice he made."

Some of the Rockwell paintings on exhibit do indicate a strong social conscience. A 1964 illustration for an article on school integration entitled, "The Problem We All Live With," shows a young black child being escorted to school by federal marshalls, with racial epithets and smashed tomatoes defacing the wall behind her. Opposite this painting is another powerful sketch of three murdered civil rights workers, "about as un- Rockwellian as you can get.

"Norman was a thoroughly decent person to whom anything of that sort, whether it was discrimination or unfairness or whatever, was distasteful, as it is to most people. . . . We have the final painting [of the civil rights workers], as well as the sketch. The magazine decided to use the sketch rather than the finished painting, and when you put them side by side you can see why. After we'd bought the finished painting i asked him about it, and he said, "Well, you know, David, by the time I got to painting the whole finished thing my initial anger was gone. I had painted the anger out. . . .'"

But Mr. Wood reveals even the production of serious work had some humor, although Mary Rockwell may have been somewhat distressed at the tomatoed wall of the 1964 painting.

"Those tomatoes -- he used about three of them -- were Mrs. Rockwell's. It had not been a good year for tomatoes, and those were all she had. She had them ripening on the kitchen window sill, and when she came home they were gone. Norman had gone out and thrown them against the wall to see what a smashed tomato looked like."

Such attention to detail evident in the paintings but not always visible in the reproductions surprises many people. In fact, after examining several Rockwell paintings, one art expert hired to help restore them is said to have turned and commented in amazement, "I just never knew he was the good."

And people of all ages are finding this out, says Mr. Wood.

"When I came here in 1974 I thought all the visitors would be little old ladies in tennis shoes. Now there's lot of young people coming, a lot of school groups, and, surprisingly, a lot of teen-agers."

Perhaps it's the spirit behind the pictures that touches so many people. Or the gentle sensitivity of the unassuming illustrator, himself, who had no pretensions to greatness but a marvelously refreshing candor. At one point in the late '60s, discouraged by the style he feld he was locked into, Norman Rockwell said to David Wood, "You know, I sit down and I try to paint a picture that's going to be like Picasso, but it always comes out looking like a Norman Rockwell."

Perhaps that's enough.

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