‘The Spirit of Giving’ at Norman Rockwell Museum

A holiday tradition at the museum
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Christmas Trio, 1923.
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Christmas Trio, 1923.

Few artists captured the spirit of the holidays quite like Norman Rockwell. 

From the rosy-cheeked children carrying one too many gifts in their arms to the silly and serious Santas, Rockwell illustrated the joy and poignancy of the season. During his career, the Stockbridge-based artist illustrated more than 300 Saturday Evening Post covers, many of which featured comforting, cheery and sometimes comedic scenes of Americans celebrating the holidays.   

Those images are part of the reason the Norman Rockwell Museum has been organizing holiday exhibitions each year. The past few have been curated by Barbara Rundback, who is a self-proclaimed Christmas nut. While she loves the lights and magic that come with the season, this year she felt the need to focus on “The Spirit of Giving.” 

“I just wanted to step away from the frenzy and look at something pure,” Rundback said, noting it seems that each season, consumers are encouraged to spend more and spend earlier. 

She was also inspired by Peter and Eliane Guiffreda, who have a vast collection of Christmas-themed artwork. 

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“His house is decorated for Christmas year-round and he has something like 800 paintings of Christmas. [Peter] just feels that everyone should be in the spirit of Christmas year-round, not just a single day,” Rundback said. 

Several of the paintings in the Guiffreda collection are featured in “The Spirit of Giving Illustrated” at the Norman Rockwell Museum, including “We Three Kings” by Greg Hildebrandt. The blue-hued work features the three figures holding up their gifts as they follow the star of Bethlehem to Jesus Christ. 

Rundback also worked within the collection of the Norman Rockwell Museum to bring out pieces that highlighted multiple aspects of giving, from donating money to giving time. 

In a poignant illustration by J.C. Leyendecker, Santa is ringing a bell for donations and a ruddy-faced newsboy is shown giving Santa his earnings. 

“I looked at the newsies from the turn of the century and how much work they even had to get 30 cents average a day, and here’s this little boy giving his money to that bell-ringing Santa,” Rundback said. 

“Give for Christmas” by Harold Anderson also features a bell-ringing Santa, only in this case Santa is giving his lunch to a hungry dog that appears to be a stray. It’s a touching piece that will still resonate with many pet owners today. Rundback said one of the reasons she wanted to include the piece is because many pet owners these days are giving Christmas gifts to their furry friends.

Beyond modern-day Santas, the exhibit delves into the origins of gift giving . 

According to Rundback, Nicholas, who was born in 270 AD, was a devout Christian who lost both his parents at a young age. He had a large inheritance and used it to help people in need. Stories spread about his generosity, and he eventually became a legendary figure who is known by several names: Santa Claus, Father Christmas, St. Nick, etc. 

Illustrating his kindness is a warmly lit watercolor by Kate Greenaway called “Christmas Eve, A Visit from Father Christmas.” In it, Santa carefully fills the stocking at the end of a child’s bed as the little one sleeps. 

Beyond the familiar and comforting iconography of Christmas characters, the exhibition, perhaps surprisingly, includes reminders of war. 

“In our collection we have World War I posters. The Red Cross used to do a drive at Christmastime to support the troops overseas,” Rundback said. 

Rockwell and other artists in the Society of Illustrators would create those posters to support the war effort. 

“After the fact, I found out that they went and trained 70-something disabled veterans to become illustrators, and tried to get them jobs after the war. It’s something I’d actually like to explore in the future because a lot of [veterans] got jobs after that. They were giving up all their expertise, all their tricks of the trade to disabled vets, which I thought was amazing,” Rundback said. 

During the holidays, Rockwell would also illustrate Christmas cards for his loved ones, and the exhibition includes examples of those. Rockwell’s whole family is seen in “Christmas Homecoming,” where Jarvis is seen arriving home and the entire family looks overjoyed. 

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“In this one, I spun the label a little bit differently because Jarvis, who is the central figure, has all these presents underneath his arms but no one’s even looking at them. They’re just happy that he’s home,” Rundback said. 

“The Spirit of Giving” also includes Rockwell’s “The Girl Reading the Post,” which might confuse some at first. Visually, there’s no hint that it has anything to do with the holidays. It features a girl with mitten-covered hands, holding open a copy of The Saturday Evening Post with her tattered schoolbooks resting in her lap. 

According to Rundback, it represents the idea of regifting. 

Rockwell originally painted the piece in the early 1940s and gifted it to Walt Disney in 1943. Disney hung the painting in his office for many years, but in the late 1990s, after Disney died, his daughter decided to gift the painting to the museum. 

“It arrived here in December,” Rundback said. Thus, it’s the “ultimate regift.” 

“The Spirit of Giving” is a lesson in the art of giving, bringing the reason for the season to life through timeless works by Rockwell, Greenaway, Leyendecker and others. It will be on exhibit through Feb. 9. The Norman Rockwell Museum is located at 9 Glendale Road/ Rte 183, Stockbridge, Massachusetts. For information, visit nrm.org. 

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts

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