The Arlington, VT Norman Rockwell Gallery opens in May. There are no original paintings, but the gallery is staffed by Rockwell neighbors who were his models.
Famous for his visual chronicle of twentieth century America, Norman Rockwell lived with is second wife and three sons in Arlington, Vermont from 1939 to 1953. Attempting to reinvent his art and his life in the early thirties following disillusionment with illustration and a failed first marriage, Rockwell remarried a younger woman, Mary Barstow, on a trip to California in April 1930. Six months later his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer and seventeen months later his first son, Jarvis, was born a month after Rockwell's father's death. Rockwell was left emotionally and financially responsible for a difficult mother. Rockwell's son, Tom, does not believe that his father ever paused to deal with the upheaval in his life. Instead he packed up his young wife and two month old son, and with two weeks warning, moved to Paris hoping to find inspiration in the work of the old masters.
While Mary Barstow struggled to make a life for Rockwell and her baby in Paris, Rockwell visited the Louvre and drew from the great masters, sketched on the streets of Paris, and worked in a rented studio. Mary, pregnant again at twenty-four, wrote sometimes positive and sometimes frantic letters to her parents in California. "[Norman] has found the courage to do what he wants which is to experiment with all sorts of things for the next six months to become an artistic artist instead of a commercial one." (Barstow, Mary in Laura Claridge, Norman Rockwell a Life, page 238.) Mary had inadvertently identified the inner conflict that haunted Rockwell throughout his artistic career - illustrator or fine artist.
Popular acclaim and financial success came to Rockwell as an illustrator - particularly for his 320 Saturday Evening Post covers that seemed to capture quintessential American sensibilities and values. Critics, often including Rockwell himself, labeled his illustrations sentimental and one-dimensional. Following the release of the Four Freedoms, a Time Magazine review said, "Rockwell would probably be incapable of portraying a really evil human being, or even a really complex one - perhaps even a really real one." Conversely, Rockwell's illustrations epitomize the illustrative form in America. Rockwell was a maestro in complete control of his form or art (Greek techne). German Expressionist, George Grosz wrote, "He has excellent technique, great strength, and a clearness of touch that the old masters had."
Professor Ivan Galantic, Art Historian at Harvard University says, "The form, the subject matter, and the content of a work of art are indivisible within the aesthetic experience of the work of art." Content - the intrinsic meaning of a work of art - is generated by the artist's feeling about his subject matter. Galantic believes: "Content is revealed when the artist is caught off-guard We trust the artist completely when the content is expressive of his feeling about the subject matter." Norman Rockwell journeyed to Paris with his new family to discover the content - the essence or soul - of his art. Rockwell's art had been the visual voice of the Great Depression, and he was floundering for subject matter that would ignite human emotion again. Rockwell experimented with a new form and Saturday Evening Post rejected two covers. Disillusioned, Rockwell returned to America.
In 1934 Rockwell began using photography along with preparatory sketches. In 1935 with a commission from George Macy to illustrate Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn for a centennial edition of Mark Twain's classics, Rockwell traveled to Hannibal, Missouri with his camera. While the artist continued to sketch from historically costumed models in his studio, photographs generated backgrounds. Artist Edward Hopper wrote that he had, "nothing but contempt for Norman Rockwell whose paintings were all done from photographs and look like it too." In 1935, Rockwell painted his only mural as a commission in the Nassau Inn in Princeton, New Jersey. The subject matter - Yankee Doodle - was a humorous illustration of the popular song. Rockwell continued to create Saturday Evening Post covers, Boy's Life covers, and Boy Scout calendars. His Tom Sawyer Whitewashing the Fence became a stamp for the United States Post Office. In 1938 following a horrific kidnapping of a small boy in Rockwell's hometown of New Rochelle, New York, Rockwell began to think again of moving his studio and his family.
Fred Hildebrandt, a model for Rockwell spoke of the wonderful trout fishing on the Battenkill River in southern Vermont. Rockwell had no intention of becoming a fisherman, but the Green Mountains appealed to him. On October 8, 1938 he purchased a farmhouse on four hundred acres in Arlington, Vermont. The family shuffled between two homes while winterizing their new farmhouse. The change of venue suited Rockwell. "The 1930's and 1940's are generally considered to be the most fruitful decades of Rockwell's career." (Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts) Rockwell's oldest son, Jarvis remembers the change as uprooting and never completely comfortable. In an interview in April of 2000, Jarvis recalled, "That difference between us [the Rockwells and the local Vermonters] that my father tried to pretend wasn't there, created a subliminal tension I was well aware that the townspeople realized that my father was making a lot of money capitalizing on their way of life, on semi-becoming one of them. There was no bad faith on anyone's side. It was just the reality."
Norman Rockwell found a simpatico artist colony in Arlington. Illustrator, Mead Schaeffer and his wife Toby, John Atherton, an illustrator and surrealist fine artist, George Hughes an illustrator, and writer Dorothy Canfield Fisher formed a circle of friends for Rockwell who worked seven days a week in his studio - emerging only for lunch and again at dinnertime. The community of artists indulged in drinks and conversation in the evenings - calling their time together, "the Children's Hour." In 1939, American Artist named Rockwell, Cruikshank, Abbey, Frost and Pyle the best American illustrators. Schaeffer and Rockwell lectured at Bennington College and traveled to Pennsylvania together to meet N.C. Wyeth.
In Arlington, Rockwell reestablished a friendship with a little know illustrator from New Rochelle, Gene Pelham. Pelham became Rockwell's photographer in Arlington for almost twenty years. Mary Rockwell and Pelham seemed to have contended to be Rockwell's main support for all the years in Arlington. In 1941, Rockwell painted an oil painting to be used as a cover for the American Magazine. Called The Sharpshooter, the horizontal composition portrays a boxer confronting an angry female spectator who glares into the far corner of the ring at the boxer's almost comatose opponent - perhaps her lover. Toby Schaeffer posed for the striking blond female and Gene Pelham posed for the cigar smoking man. Rockwell wrote, "My problem was to catch the excitement of the prize ring - to create a feeling of tenseness and action." Rockwell sketched in a boxing ring in Columbus Circle, New York, but all his models were Arlington neighbors. Rockwell knew the realism of George Bellows and the Ashcan School and infused his painting with that kind of raw power, but Rockwell's characters are exaggerated as in a film. Is the content of The Sharpshooter generated by the artist's feeling about his subject matter, or is he manipulating his characters for dramatic effect?
In 1941 Norman Rockwell joined the war effort with Saturday Evening Post covers that chronicled the experiences of a gangly, redheaded enlisted boy that he named Willie Gillis. In eleven covers Rockwell took his imagined soldier (the model Bob Buck did enlist in the army) from Hometown News (a homesick soldier devouring his town's papers) to Willie Gillis in College (a more mature young man in college on the GI Bill). Americans saw Willie Gillis as the American everyman and rejoiced in his homecoming.
On January 6, 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt made a speech outlining the Four Basic Human Freedoms that brought America into WWII - freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Rockwell who considered himself apolitical was never the less moved by FDR's hope for freedom for everyone in the world. He contemplated making paintings of the Four Freedoms and in the summer of 1942 traveled to Washington D.C. to propose the project to the government. Rejected by Washington, Rockwell stopped in Philadelphia on the way back to Vermont and sold the project to Ben Hibbs, the new Editor of the Saturday Evening Post. The Post hired writers Booth Tarkington, Will Durant, Carlos Bulosan, and Stephen Vincent Benet to write essays on each of the freedoms and to be published with the paintings.
Rockwell struggled with the abstract ideas in FDR's speech. "It's so darn high blown, somehow I just couldn't get my mind around it," he said. He wanted to give concrete hometown, American form to four ideals. Rockwell later said of the paintings: "I did these in Arlington, Vermont, and these are my neighbors." As was habitual with Rockwell, the covers were not completed by the deadlines. For Freedom of Speech, (oil, Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, MA, 1943), Rockwell posed one of his neighbors standing to speak at a Town Meeting in Arlington. The other neighbors listen respectfully despite differing opinions. Rockwell's single eye (half a face) in the upper left of the painting is the highest head in the congregation. The speaker instead of addressing his neighbors seems to be looking into a vague light above creating an overly sentimental pathos. Critic Arthur Danto wrote of the Post Cover in April of 1943. [Rockwell] is at once sympathetic to the people and superior to them. He does not take people seriously and the joke is almost always at their expense allowing the viewer to feel superior." Rockwell's son, Peter, a sculptor and art historian, believes his father was searching for truth in his paintings, but Danto wrote that Rockwell's paintings were not imitating the truth of life.
In Freedom from Want, (oil, Norman Rockwell Museum, 1943), Rockwell posed his own family about to partake of Thanksgiving Dinner. Mrs. Wheaton the Rockwell's cook posed holding the Thanksgiving turkey and Rockwell's family (including his troublesome mother and his own self portrait) ranges around the table. Rockwell soon discovered that to Europeans caught in war and poverty, this intended meager feast represented American indulgence in contrast to the plight of the rest of the world. The original concept for Freedom of Religion (oil, Norman Rockwell Museum, 1943) was a barbershop with a Jewish customer, a Protestant barber, a Catholic priest and a black man. Rockwell found that even his models protested the stereotypical portrayals of each ethnic, racial or religious group so he scrapped the idea. He chose instead to create a montage of profiles praying with the accouterments of the various religions - Koran, rosary beads, folded hands. Across the top in gold letters he inscribed, "Each according to the dictates of his own conscience." (Attributed to the Thirteen Articles of Mormon Faith) The result was platitude replacing real emotional content.
The final freedom, Freedom from Fear, (oil, Norman Rockwell Museum, 1943), was a scene of a mother and father tucking their children into bed at night. The father holds a paper with headlines about the bombings in London. In the American home the lights are on and the window shade is open - something blackout London could not afford to families. Instead of illustrating a lack of fear, Rockwell managed to call attention to the fear felt in London and much of Europe thus removing the freedoms from the realm of people everywhere as he had intended. Rockwell had wanted the Four Freedoms to be his masterpiece - transforming ideal concepts into human terms. The result was a disappointment to him. He once said, "I do ordinary people in everyday situations and I find that I can fit most anything into the frame, even fairly big ideas." In the Four Freedoms Rockwell was overwhelmed by the big ideas.
The American people, however, loved the four paintings. Freedom from Want became one of the most reproduced paintings in American art. Wanting to benefit from the rush of approval, the U.S. Treasury initiated a tour of The Four Freedoms that was visited by 1,220,000 people and raised 133 million dollars in war bonds for the treasury. An article in the New Yorker stated, "They were reviewed by the public with more enthusiasm, perhaps, than any other paintings in the history of American art."
In May of 1943, Norman Rockwell's studio in Arlington burned to the ground. He lost his art library, his historical costumes, thirty oil paintings and all his materials. Rockwell could not live at the site of his personal disaster and immediately purchased a farmhouse in West Arlington - across the covered bridge, set on the banks of the Battenkill River. The Rockwell family instantly became friends with their next-door neighbors - farmers Clara and Jim Edgerton. Tommy Rockwell, in the face of his father's omnipresent work regiment, was practically raised by Jim alongside his son, Buddy.
Although the image cultivated by Norman Rockwell was (like Robert Frost's image) as one of the "folks" in Vermont, the family was in dissolution as Rockwell's career flourished. Increasingly prone to crying scenes, Mary Rockwell was portrayed as frazzled in Christmas Homecoming, (Saturday Evening Post cover, December 1948). The reality for the Rockwell family was a wife and mother, no longer able to play caretaker to her husband and sons, and suffering from alcohol abuse and mental illness. Mary sought help from psychologists in Bennington and then began commuting to Stockbridge, MA as an outpatient (later an inpatient) at Austen Riggs Mental Hospital. Rockwell, unable to deal with the distraction to his work, fled to California. Jarvis and Tom were in prep school at Oakwood School in New York, but Peter was still at home. In an interview in June of 2000, Peter said, "I was twelve years old and he left me alone with a mother who was falling apart."
Rockwell's paintings seem not to have suffered through personal tragedy. As Mary's life unraveled - constantly bothering Toby Schaeffer and Clara Edgerton in the middle of the night with ranting and crying, two alcohol related car accidents, loss of her drivers license, and joining multiple churches - Rockwell continued to paint. In April of 1950 he finished what is believed by many critics to be his masterpiece: Shuffleton's Barber Shop, (oil, Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, MA, 1950 - Saturday Evening Post cover Arpil 1950).
In Norman Rockwell, K.A. Marling writes, "Rockwell's masterpiece, Shuffleton's Barber Shop, is also an exercise in making ordinary things profoundly mysterious through the manipulation of light and space." Like Vermeer, whose serene domestic scenes are elevated by light that informs every object, Rockwell creates an illuminated fictional space for his characters and the trappings of their lives. The light source spills out of the open door defining the objects in the darkened shop. Peter Rockwell believes that the art of Pieter de Hooch informed his father's composition. Hooch, a Dutch genre painter, creates domestic scenes that evoke quiet and peace.
Rockwell's viewer stands with the artist outside a plate glass window (inscribed with both the barber's and Rockwell's name) looking into an after hours gathering of musicians. The viewer sees through the darkened shop to a lighted back room where musicians practice together oblivious to the viewer or to anything outside their music. Here, finally, Rockwell found his content. The simple evening pleasure of his neighbors, absorbed in their own art form, spills from the doorway across the shop in the form of visual music. The artist is "caught off guard" by the intimacy of the moment. An artist's content begins at the moment when he is absorbed by the subject matter as Rockwell is by the music that flows out over the silent objects in the shop. Rockwell wrote, "I love to tell stories. I know that's not what the Fine Artist goes for, but it's what I go for and I love it." In Shuffleton's Barber Shop Rockwell tells a real story about the essential nature of human beings - old men contented just by companionship and the presence of music at the end of the day. Rockwell may have painted the real Vermont for the first time. John Updike called Shuffleton's Barber Shop, "a truly amazing painting."
When Rockwell decided to move his family from Vermont to Stockbridge in 1953 to be closer to Mary's caregivers, he did not inform the village - not even the Edgerton family or Gene Pelham, his photographer. Gene did not know that Rockwell was leaving Arlington until the moving vans arrived. Rockwell gave him several paintings as severence. The Edgertons kept their knowledge of Mary's mental illness secret until after her death. In Stockbridge, Rockwell himself became a patient of Erik Erikson, the famous California psychologist, now at Austen Riggs. Erikson, Rockwell later said, told him "he [had] painted his happiness rather than living it."