Popular art with a side of history: A visit to the Norman Rockwell Museum
With Thanksgiving approaching next week, I though that today would be a good time to talk about our visit to the Norman Rockwell Museum in the summer of 2012. I mean, since he did create what is probably our most iconic image of that American holiday.
Of course, that turkey day painting (formally known as “Freedom from Want”) is only one of the over 4000 images Rockwell created in his lifetime. This lovely museum does a great job of displaying some of his most popular work, as well as a few paintings that are less familiar.
The first place we headed after arriving at the museum was downstairs to the gallery where all 323 of Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers are on display. A video playing in this room tells the story of Rockwell’s life (which was long and interesting), but it is the covers that are the most compelling, ranging as they do from 1916 to 1963 and telling stories of everything from date nights gone awry to a father embarrassedly trying to explain the facts of life to his son
Ten-year-old Tommy especially liked the covers that tell a story using multiple pictures in a sort of comic-strip format. He loved “The Gossips” perhaps most of all, laughing out loud as he looked at it.
These covers are just plain fun to explore, and I’m pretty sure that we looked at every single one before moving upstairs to see some of the paintings that they were produced from.
Rockwell’s most important series of paintings are The Four Freedoms, which represent the four great human rights ideals from Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address: Freedom from Want, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Fear, and Freedom of Speech. The paintings were published as four consecutive Post covers in 1943 with accompanying essays by prominent writers and also toured the country as part of a hugely successful exhibition that raised money for war bonds. They are displayed in a special part of the exhibit hall, and it is impressive to see them all together. I especially like “Freedom of Speech”, which shows a blue-eyed man speaking at a New England town meeting, his neighbors looking on respectfully. Idealized, certainly, but a worthy thing to look at in the context of our current political climate.
Rockwell stopped painting for the Post in the early 1960s because he wanted to be more overtly political in his work; in the main galleries you can see the results of his tenure at Look magazine, for which in 1964 he painted “The Problem We All Live With”, which tells the story of Ruby Bridges, the first African American to integrate the public schools in New Orleans.
In an adjacent gallery, you can see the dress worn by Lynda Gunn (a local Stockbridge girl who stood in for Ruby Bridges as a model for the painting) and also one of the many letters Rockwell received after the cover was published, this one by a man from Tennessee thanking him for opening his eyes to the absurdity of his own racism.
One painting I had never seen, also created for Look, is called “Moving Day” and shows a black family moving into what is clearly a white neighborhood. The story here is really told from the perspective of the children – who gaze curiously and tentatively at each other – the adult world is present only in the face that peers out from a curtained window. The painting illustrates the integration of Chicago’s Park Forest suburbs in the 1960s, but was immediately recognizable to Tommy as something that could happen today. “Those kids look nervous!” he said. “I bet it’s hard to move into a new place.”
After we had toured the museum, we headed across the grounds to see Rockwell’s studio, which was brought there from downtown Stockbridge in 1986. This tidy space is full of the tools Rockwell used in his work. It currently shows how it looked as he painted the famous “Golden Rule” in 1960 including photographs of some of his models.
To me it was a revelation both to see how productive Rockwell was, and over how long a period of time, but also how much care he put into his work, often sketching and reworking his paintings numerous times before producing the finished work. To see so many of his paintings together is also to see not only his sentimentality, but his timeless sense of humor – many of the stories he tells are genuinely funny, all the more so because of how recognizable they are.
Rockwell’s work may have been commercial and is certainly literal and, at times, idealized. But it is also unquestionably art, and art that is very accessible to children in the way it tells everyday stories or clearly illustrates historical moments or important ideas.
- You’ll find the Normal Rockwell Museum just outside Stockbridge, Massachusetts, about halfway between Boston and New York City. Plan about two to three hours for a visit to the museum – we spent over an hour alone in the gallery with the magazine covers.
- It’s worth paying the extra fee (on top of admission) to rent audio guides. The guide tells the story of many of the covers from the point of view of Rockwell’s models, including his own son. Most of the stops on the audio tour include both an explanation intended for adults and one for children.
- The museum has a free print family guide that you can request at the front desk. It includes explanations of some of the paintings, questions for discussion, and activities for kids that are designed to help them understand and interact with the art.
- The museum also hosts temporary exhibits, some of them aimed at families, like one that showcased the art of the Curious George illustrators.
- Although the museum is open year round, Rockwell’s studio is only open from May until November. The museum café, which serves food from the nearby Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, is open only from May to October.
- Like this post? You might also enjoy my advice on how to take kids to art museums.