Wednesday, October 20, 2010
NORMAN ROCKWELL’S AMERICA
With the assistance of his son Thomas, Rockwell published an autobiography in 1960, for which he painted his famous “Triple Self-Portrait”.
It is something of a “home-coming” each year, as I turn west out of Arlington on old River Road, and wend my way along the world’s most famous stretch of fly-fishing waters to a place where a red covered bridge crosses the Battenkill. There, from a grassy knoll I can enjoy the murmur of the river, the quiet of the southern Vermont countryside, and a view of the nearby white-painted farmhouse which was once home and studio to the artist who – more than any other figure – painted an image of America which continues to remind his countrymen of who we are and how we got this way. It was here where for fourteen of his most inspired and productive years Norman Percevel Rockwell (1894-1978) lived and worked. He was drawn to this pastoral community not just because of its quiet beauty, but because of its unassuming, everyday people. In the ensuing years, more than 200 of those humble country folks – old and young – would find themselves perched on a stool in his studio, and then featured in a magazine or calendar cover to be circulated far and wide. A narrowing handful of those childhood models - now in their golden years - still live here, and I have visited with probably 20 or 30 of them over an extended period of time. In each case, they have told me how their lives were forever touched by this connection. And I know something of how they feel.
Around 1959, the Vermont-based corporation by which I was employed asked Mr. Rockwell to create a painting to serve as the centerpiece of a national advertising campaign. Then living in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the famous artist/illustrator required some persuasion to take on the project, and somehow, I was tapped to play a liaison role in the effort. Part of the challenge was to find the exact likeness he sought to model the story he had decided to portray, and the future of my business career seemed to hang on the success of my mission. That became a longer story than I wish to recite today, but in the end, we found the right subject, the painting was completed, and the full-page result found its way into National Geographic, Saturday Evening Post, and many other national publications. The large original oil still hangs in the company’s corporate headquarters, and the only-known miniature is in front of me as I write.
At a time when so many seem uncertain about our national identity, I call to mind sitting over a quiet lunch with Mr. Rockwell and seeing the sadness he felt at what he lamented as our failure to pass on to a new generation that simple, undisguised love of country he had tried to capture and share with others. He told me of the feelings that overcame him the day he delivered the last of his 321 magazine-cover paintings to the publishers of Saturday Evening Post and the end of a seventeen-year relationship with a dying breed of editors. I can think of no one who worked harder to shape a positive and uplifting view of ourselves as my erstwhile friend who was often cast aside by critics and fellow-artists as a “mere illustrator”.
Norman Rockwell possessed an ability to “see” things that others would pass by. Walking through an industrial Kansas workplace and puffing on his pipe one day, he clasped my arm and, pointing to a worker I knew well (Charlie Rider), asked excitedly “who is that man?” Then searching Charlie’s time-worn craggy face he said “I would like to know his story”. I had the feeling that you could not long hide secrets from this tall, slim American whose eyes had the ability to read faces and hearts. He loved the “genuineness” of “real” people and disdained the artifice and pretense of those we might think of in today’s society as “cool”. I asked him once if he had any favorites among the 4000 works he had produced over the years. Without much hesitation he named “The Four Freedoms” series he completed in 1943 and “Saying Grace”, a 1951 Post cover which happens to be by own favorite Rockwell work.
Norman Rockwell passed away at Stockbridge November 8, 1978 at the age of 84, and I miss him both as a great American who left us better off because of what he gave us, and as a personal inspiration. He was a true “gentleman”. He was honored with our country’s highest civilian honor “The Presidential Medal of Freedom” in 1977, and in a 2001 Sotheby’s auction, his painting “Breaking Home Ties” sold for $15.4 million. Not bad for a “mere illustrator”.
An Al Cooper “treasure” a dedicated studio photo shows Norman Rockwell working on the large original oil painting mentioned in this article.