Norman Rockwell – A Sense of Déjà vu
by Lois Berry
Have you ever had the sensation of knowing someone
but not really knowing them; of having their name run around in your head
and don’t know why, then something that is specifically made by them appears
in your life. Is it coincidence? I think not. This is what happened to
me, with well known illustrator Norman Rockwell.
My story starts in the spring of 1999 when my son-in-law Clyde discovered and bought four Rockwell prints at a yard sale in Rochester, NH and excitedly called me about his find. These prints, after a good cleaning up, adorned my daughter Gail’s stairway wall.
Then the weekend of May 14th. my husband Tommy B. and I attended a New England District of Kiwanis Lt. Governor’s training session in Lewiston, ME where I was preparing for my role as Lt. Governor of Division 7 in the Seacoast area. Yup! You guessed it. It turned out that the Governor -Elect of the New England District of Kiwanis , R .Michael Kirchner, is the Safety Manager at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
Included in his welcoming packet to the service oriented Kiwanis members that weekend were Norman Rockwell key chains that Mike presented to everyone. Again in August at the annual Kiwanis District Convention in Sturbridge, MA, Mike presented his in-coming Kiwanis District Board with the well known Rockwell print, “Policeman With Boys.” This particular Rockwell is one of eighty-one drawings done for the Massachusetts Mutual Life Company. It appeared in national magazines throughout the 1950’s and early 60’s. The caption reads: “There are times when extra protection is a mighty comforting thing to a small boy.” This was a nice choice of prints since Mike is a retired Chief of Police in West Stockbridge, MA and the model for this Rockwell drawing was the late Chief of Police in Stockbridge, William J. Obanhein , now known and famed as Rockwell’s Officer Obie. Was it a coincidence that I would be at the right place, at the right time on this night to be a part of this presentation and become an owner of this Rockwell print?
All I know is my series of Norman Rockwell experiences continued. Eventually they led me to a Saturday night auction in Rochester, NH, where auctioneer Chuck Brown of the Top of the World auction services had for sale four lots of Saturday Evening Post magazines featuring Rockwell covers. I fervently bid on and bought all four lots of these early Post magazines so I could pursue my now dedicated effort to learn more about this man who had begun to permeate my social, personal and business life.
Norman Rockwell was born on the Upper West side of Manhattan, New York on February 3, 1894, in what he described in his story “My Life As An Illustrator” in the July/August 1977 issue of the Post, as “a shabby brownstone-front house on 103rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue.” It was also revealed in this issue that Norman at the age of sixteen while enrolled as a student at the National Academy of Fine Arts had a secret ambition: a cover on The Saturday Evening Post. Having had a classic late Victorian up-bringing, it was customary for his father to read aloud the works of Dickens for the entire family. These readings were a foundation of building blocks that eased Norman into the field of magazine illustrations.
He started his career as an illustrator in 1910, but his association with the Saturday Evening Post started in March of 1916 when at the age of twenty-two he set out for Philadelphia, the Curtis Publishing House and the Post, where three of his sketches were accepted for future Post covers. He received $75.00 for each cover. He flourished and gained national acclaim. His illustrations have graced the covers of 321 issues of the Post. Year 1916 also held another significance as this was the year Norman met his first wife Irene; unfortunately the marriage did not last and they divorced in 1929. However, Norman remarried in 1930 to Mary Barstow and in 1939 moved to Vermont with their three children, Jarvis, Thomas and Peter, who now carry on the Rockwell legacy in the world of arts. The family moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts in 1953 and Mary passed away in 1959. Norman married Mary (Molly) Punderson six years later.
Rural matters were his specialty. He has been quoted as saying he felt more at home in the country, even though he was city bred. As his career progressed, he modified his style somewhat. Conventional paintings became more specific in details, stereotypes were replaced by individualized characters, and scenes were filled with significant details. Fully aware his work would be reproduced, he became a pictorial story teller with his paintings. As a traditional painter he sustained the innocence of his beliefs and values and principles of believing in the fundamental decency of his fellow man. He transported the rural life of America into the every day average home. Norman went beyond someone who just illustrated another person’s story. He added a most remarkable visual dimension, he was the author of the story, a person who used his eyes, hands and artistry skills to create a painting that would capture the essence of what he wanted to convey to his audience. Small crisises of every day life became real and believable through his brush. His audience could identify with his paintings.
The first two decades of his career were performed using a small amount of props and usually against a white background - in 1937 this method of painting changed when he incorporated the use of photography to capture naturalistic poses. His use of real people - family, friends, neighbors and settings of every day life became the staples of his craft. The cumulative effect of people and props is what made him so outstanding with the American culture.
Being a master of many techniques, he used whatever props he felt would convey the message in the picture that he was painting. Sometimes he would even move real life objects from one place to another if that is what fulfilled, in his eyes, a realistic painting. For example, in his 1950’s painting of the buildings and stores on Main Street in Stockbridge, he moved the Berkshire Mountains to in-town by the buildings to compliment the background of the painting. This painting went on to become world-renown, used for Christmas cards.
Norman’s great love was of his presentation of faces and hands in a painting. This is very obvious as one looks at his paintings, the intensity of these details spring to life before the viewers eyes. Occasionally, he did a caricature but he always returned to his liking of family and family relationships.
Rockwell’s 1940’s war effort was in the execution of the Four Freedom of Speech paintings that were inspired by Franklin Roosevelt’s Freedom speech. Using his wife, mother and friends as models, these paintings took seven and a half months to paint. In fact, the cook holding the turkey in the Freedom from Want painting was indeed his cook, Mrs. Wheaton. These paintings of Freedom of Speech, to Worship, from Want, and from Fear, were commissioned by the Office of War Information, and were used to sell War Bonds, which raised over one hundred million dollars for the United States Government. Four million sets of these prints were distributed all over the world, bringing Norman national acclaim.
My Vermont Kiwanis friends have reminded me that Norman Rockwell resided in Vermont for fourteen years before moving to Stockbridge and his Four Freedoms series were actually created in his Arlington, VT studio. Vermont proudly boasts of two Rockwell Museum’s, one in Rutland, and the other is the Arlington Gallery in the center of Arlington. Being well known for using people he knew for models in his paintings, folks in these towns can give the visitor another dimension of the life and times of Norman Rockwell.
Rockwell paintings are greatly reproduced and can be seen on wall calendars, (his Boy Scout calendars were among the top sellers in the nation) collector plates and cups, musical mugs, even postage stamps. Prints, books, tapes and other memorabilia are available for purchase in most any bookstore, but a visit to your local antiques and collectibles shop should reveal a treasure trove of Rockwell items to collect.
Looking through my issues of the Post, I found various items for sale. The December 1974 issue has on page 13 a series of Rockwell Christmas cards reproduced from 13 of his paintings that sold in box lots of twenty-five for $11.00 without personal name imprint, or $11.50 with your name. The December 25, 1976 issue chronicles a portfolio of Rockwell Santas; on page five, Norman professes “his love of children and showing them at their happiest times”. Also shown is a collection of ten beautiful porcelain children figurines appropriately titled “Joys of Childhood.” At that time the limited edition figurines sold for $120 each and the buyer would be billed in three equal monthly installments of $40 per month. These figurines are highly desirable to the serious collector as they were the first porcelain figures designed by Rockwell and were available only by Franklin Porcelain, a division of the Franklin Mint.
In the 1977 issues are The Four Season limited edition medallions, made of sterling silver that sold for $60 per set. Figurines ranged from $25 to $45 and china Presidential Plates went for $30. Football lovers would find the October 1976 issue to be very interesting as it is a Special Football Issue with a 6 page Football Cover Portfolio of history that has inspired artists since the beginnings of the game. Other artist pictorials are included here as well as Rockwell to depict the past glories of the game.
For John F. Kennedy collectors, the Bicentennial 1976 July/August issue has a remembrance to John on page 74, as well as a nine page pullout portfolio of Rockwell covers for framing.
If you are wondering where Norman got his models for his illustrations, well so was I. Then I read the May/June 1976 issue where the Post interviewed twelve of his models. They were celebrating May 20th as their sixtieth anniversary of Rockwell’s first Post cover.
Model Robert Buck at the age of sixteen met Norman in West Arlington, VT. Robert became Rockwell’s most enduring character Willie Gillis, Americas “Average Soldier” appearing eleven times between 1941and 1946.
Mary Whalen Leonard was once called by Rockwell his, ‘ favorite model.” Mary and her twin brother Pete were regulars at Rockwell’s studio in Arlington in the early 50’s. Charles Marsh, Jr. also of Arlington, first posed as a three month old baby and continued to pose for him until the age of twelve when Rockwell moved from Vermont to Stockbridge. Charles recalled many older folks and children in town also posed for him, plus Rockwell was a magnet for other aspiring and noted artists to reside in Arlington. According to Charles, Rockwell was noted for changing his models to fit a scene; Charles was consistently depicted with red hair and freckles. Indeed he did have lots of freckles, but he had blond hair.
The Ingram family in Stockbridge had three family members pose for Rockwell. Mom Evelyn and sons Kenneth and Scott. Rockwell went about finding his models in a very old fashioned way. When he felt a subject would be suitable for the public, he went directly to family members in the Stockbridge area and asked if they or their children would pose for him. Since he was well known and active in the community, there was not a lack of models. Even a favorite school teacher, Anne Braman appeared in the cover, “Happy Birthday, Miss Jones”. This was his tribute to all school teachers and to her in particular. The two front teeth missing painting of Ann Morgan Baker was originally supposed to be a Crest toothpaste ad but with the front teeth missing, instead it became a Rockwell cover.
Everybody had their favorite family doctor and Norman had his. Donald Campbell, M.D. who lived across the street. Donald became the doctor in the cover, “At the Doctor’s”. Richard Clemens was a State Police Officer when Rockwell asked him to pose for “The Runaway” with young Eddie Locke, who had his hobo bag ready as he was leaving home. Richard,, who hails from Massachusetts, had a copy of this cover hanging in the State Police Academy in Framingham. And last, but definitely not the end of the models, is Ernest Hall, who along with his brother owned and operated Hall’s Auto Services in Stockbridge. Ernie, who was Rockwell’s next door neighbor, posed for the “Expense Account” cover in 1958.
“It was a nice, easy going session, Mr. Rockwell just kept talking and puffing on his pipe.” All
the models expressed pretty much the same sentiments of pleasure in working with Norman; it is easy to see why this man became the beloved artist he did. This same issue carried many comments from world-renown people from all walks of life who had only the finest words of praise and tribute for America’s top talent.
My personal favorite of all the Posts was the January/February 1978 issue with a front page splash: A Very Special Issue on Norman Rockwell, his life, his work, his thoughts and his great spirit. Letter after letter appears in the editorial section, praising this most notable man who captured the heart of America. Included in this impressive list is Ronald Reagan, Bob Hope, Walter Cronkite, Pearl Bailey, Paul Harvey, Jamie Wyeth and John Wayne, just to name a few. This issue has several articles and pictorials by Rockwel, but the one I found most interesting is the article he wrote about himself on page 10 and titled “Artist in the Marketplace”. In this article Norman depicts himself as an ordinary man who has had his share of life problems, but who also shares gratitude for the talent he has to bring such pleasure to mankind.
The January/February 1979 issue of the Post is also a tribute to the life of Norman Rockwell; but to myself as a member of the Kiwanis Club of Rochester, NH, I found it interesting that a Kiwanis Club was mentioned in this issue. Co-incidence, I think not.
Kiwanis and Norman Rockwell. They seem to share the same “back to basics”, hometown values, qualities and world-wide concerns for mankind. In 1978, Rockwell received probably his highest honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for his “vivid and affectionate portraits of our country.”
A final remembrance and quote from Norman Rockwell who died in 1978 at the age of eighty-four. “Maybe as I grew up and found the world wasn’t the perfectly pleasant place I had thought it to be, I unconsciously decided that, even if it wasn’t an ideal world, it should be, so I painted only the ideal aspects of it.’
My story would not be complete if I didn’t tell you Tommy B. and I did visit the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA in the fall of 1999. It was awesome! I found myself overwhelmed with not only the beauty of his magnificent paintings but the picturesque surroundings as well.
Gallery talks take place on the hour and we had the good fortune to have Meg Williamson as our tour guide. She capsules Rockwell information, such as the fact he wanted to be an illustrator since early childhood, dropped out of school at age 15, favorite drink was Coca-Cola, and his favorite colors - in this order - were red, yellow and green.
The Norman Rockwell Museum was founded in 1969 with the help of Molly and Norman Rockwell. It is located on Route 183 in the small New England village of Stockbridge, MA that was his home for the last 25 years of his life. The museum has changing open daily hours during the winter months, but is open year round, except Thanks- giving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Picnics are allowed in warm weather, tables are provided on the grounds and the museum is handicapped accessible. There is always something new and interesting to see and do. For tour reservations and program information call visitor services at 413-298-4100,ext.220.
For more Norman Rockwell exhibits and museums, check out the web. I did a search using the Altavista search engine at http://www.altavista.com and the top 40 listings provided some really different websites to browse through, including the Rockwell museum in VT.
Ed. Note: The Norman Rockwell exhibit of 322 of his paintings entitled “Pictures for the American People”, depicting all of his Saturday Evening Post covers and almost 50 years of work, is currently on tour in the United States, beginning in Atlanta, Georgia in January, 2000. On loan from the collections of the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA and other museums, this exhibit ends at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City in February, 2002. Watch for “The Greatest Shop Window in America” coming to a city near you.