It’s easy to see where America’s greatest illustrator took inspiration from as we pull into Stockbridge, a small, New England town in the Berkshires. Norman Rockwell, considered by many America’s most popular artist of the 20th century, made his home here in 1953. He became so attached to the community, he established a trust while he was still alive, ensuring his works would be left to the Stockbridge Historical Society, who later created the Norman Rockwell Museum.
If your eyes are starting to glaze over at the thought of visiting a museum, rather than taking a hike in the mountains of the beautiful Berkshires, rest assured, this is a museum for museum haters.
For starters, Rockwell has an interesting story. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his “vivid and affectionate portraits of our country.” Born in 1894, Rockwell always knew he wanted to be an artist. He studied art at the National Academy of Design and was already being commissioned to paint Christmas cards by the age of 16. As a teenager, he became art director of Boy’s Life, the Boy Scouts’ official magazine.
Rockwell went on to produce work for Life magazine and other publications before painting his first cover for The Saturday Evening Post at just 22 years old. He would go on to paint more than 320 covers, all of which are on display at the museum. The weekly magazine covered current affairs, and Rockwell’s lavish covers were clever illustrations of topical themes making both the magazine and the artist wildly popular.
Rockwell is best known for creating a national identity, from his idealised view of small town America, to his visual commentaries on the Civil Rights Movement; one work entitled, The Problem We All Live With portrays a little black girl walking past the word “Nigger” graffiti’ed on a wall. Rockwell had a clear, authentic vision of American life. Some of those visions are easy to see in Stockbridge and all around the Berkshires.
What makes the Rockwell museum so accessible is both its subject matter (which is sometimes challenging, as well as humorous, and often plainly pleasing), and its layout. Descriptive panels weave interesting back stories about each picture, rather than posit what Rockwell may have been trying to convey.
There’s something to identify with in most pictures, whether it’s the young boy cringing at the site of a doctor about to deliver a jab, or a warm scene of a bountiful Thanksgiving table where no one is fighting (okay, maybe not identifiable, but certainly idyllic), these pictures are visions of regular people.
There are more than 700 paintings, drawings and studies, and an entire archive of photographs and letters here. The museum grounds sprawl over 36 acres, and Rockwell’s studio was moved to the site from the centre of town to allow visitors the chance to view it as he kept it.
The museum also works hard to stay current with rotating exhibits. It’s no secret galleries have to rely on a few tricks to pull people in these days, but the Rockwell museum remains the most popular in the region. It’s packed, in fact. Many have come for the Heroes & Villains exhibit exploring the art of Alex Ross, the prolific comic book artist responsible for Superman, Captain Marvel and other favourites. Why? Because Ross, like so many American artists, was heavily influenced and inspired by Rockwell. The PR man at the museum gives me a wink and explains it’s “a bit of a stretch”. But I disagree.
Rockwell is the real deal; an American icon, and it’s fascinating to see the impact of his work on modern artists. Further, let’s be honest, it’s an exhibit that runs over Christmas and February vacation, and if it lures kids into the museum, which it does, then I think it’s a grand idea. Rockwell took a fun approach to chronicling life in 20th century America, and it shows at the museum. There’s nothing stuffy about it, in fact, if we had more time, we’d sit and stare for a good long while, and one of us is definitely NOT a museum person.