STOCKBRIDGE, Mass. -- Familiar favorites join the unknowns and the unexpected in “Norman Rockwell: Private Moments for the Masses.”
Featuring family photographs, self-portraits, sketches and personal ephemera, the exhibition opens on Saturday at the Norman Rockwell Museum. It’s a part of the museum’s 50th anniversary and thus, the exhibit is just one way that NRM is focusing on its founding artist this summer. The exhibit also celebrates the recent re-release of “My Adventures as an Illustrator,” Rockwell’s autobiography originally published in 1960.
“The show focuses on the idea that Rockwell as a close observer of human nature and the world around him, wound up incorporating a lot of his own personal experiences into his paintings,” said Stephanie Plunkett, the deputy director/chief curator at the Norman Rockwell Museum.
Growing up in New York City, Rockwell credits his family for his artistic eye.
“Rockwell actually credited his great grandfather Howard Hill with his love of detail, as well as Charles Dickens, who was read to Rockwell and his brother in the evenings by their father,” Plunkett said. Hill was an itinerant painter and though Rockwell’s father wasn’t an artist, he did sketch illustrations he saw in magazines. The exhibit includes one of those sketches, as well as a surprising report card from Rockwell’s days in high school. “His high school report card actually shows that he wasn’t a very good art student. He received a 70 in advanced drawing and a 70 in art in 1909,” Plunkett said, “I love that story because anybody else might have been discouraged by those grades.”
Yet, Rockwell did just the opposite, going on to become an art student at the Art Students League. The exhibition gives a glimpse into that time period of his life, with Rockwell’s caricature sketch “I meet the body beautiful,” (1960). Rockwell created it as a chapter heading for his autobiography, drawing himself as skinny art student working at an easel as a model smoking a cigar casually looks on. The people who modeled for the League were described as larger than life, and they would often scrutinize the student’s work just as much as the teachers.
Throughout the exhibit, there are chances to hear Rockwell tells stories like this in his own words. The museum acquired original dictaphone recordings where the artist was reminiscing about his life, which were used in creating his autobiography.
“Those recordings became the basis of the book. One of the fun aspects of the exhibition is we will have an audio tour in Rockwell’s own voice,” Plunkett said.
Rockwell talks about his time in art school, as well as his professional career and his family, which he often included in his work.
His youngest son, Peter, is the model in “Boy in Dining Car,” which shows a young boy trying to figure out how to tip a waiter as the waiter looks on, smiling.
“Rockwell had to convince him to sit in a very hot railway car in the middle of the summer in New York City and pose for the picture by promising to take him to FAO Schwarz to pick out something special afterward,” Plunkett said.
The exhibition also gives a rare glimpse into his life in Arlington, Vermont, where he lived from 1939-1953.
On loan from the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” is considered one of Rockwell’s masterpieces. It has a bit of a recent controversial history as it was one of the pieces that the Berkshire Museum sold in 2017. It was purchased by the Lucas Museum, which opens in 2022 in Los Angeles. Thus, its presence on the east coast is likely to be a rare occurrence in the coming years.
“What’s special about it is it’s a scene of Rockwell’s own barbershop in Arlington, Vermont,” Plunkett said.
Shuffleton’s was part sporting goods store and part barbershop, as evidenced by the fishing poles and the shaving cups in the piece. During the off hours, people would gather to play music, which viewers can see from the warmly lit background in the painting.
“There’s some nice touches like the magazine rack on the left features comic books and one of the things Pete Rockwell, Rockwell’s son, told us is that they loved to go to Shuffleton’s because while they were waiting to have their hair cut they could spend time reading comic books. They didn’t like it when they were called because it meant they couldn’t read the books any more,” Plunkett said.
Another piece that reveals a bit of his life in Vermont is “The Gossip,” which Rockwell painted in 1948. In typical Rockwell humor, he lines up portraits of people looking shocked or scandalized and spreading some bit of gossip.
“Rockwell himself is the brunt of the gossip and at the end he confronts the woman who started it all,” Plunukett said.
At the time, it was considered his most popular “Post” cover and he used people from around the town as models for the piece, touching perhaps on a central part of small town living.
Even though his works have a certain spirit of joy and a sense of humor, Rockwell’s life was just as complicated as the rest of ours, perhaps more so. He struggled with insecurities throughout his life, both in terms of his career and his patriotism.
Rockwell wanted to serve during World War I, so in June of 1917, he went to enlist in the Navy.
However, he was 17 pounds underweight. After stuffing himself with doughnuts, bananas, and water, he was able to gain seven pounds and an examining doctor let him enlist. He served for four months, before realizing that his talents were best suited elsewhere. His discharge papers are included in the exhibit.
As an artist, he felt insecure about his commercial success versus his creative success. He was one of the country’s most famous illustrators at a time when abstract art was all the rage in the art world.
Later in his career, he also felt the need to make more of a social difference through his artwork. “I think in the '60s he did a number of powerful Civil Rights paintings that I think would surprise most people in terms of the subject matter,” Plunkett said.
“New Kids in the Neighborhood,” which he created in 1967 and is featured in the exhibit, shows two young black kids and three young white kids standing in front of a moving van and looking at one another.
“He was working at a very dynamic time and I think he was a very reassuring guide in people’s changing world. So this will say a little about Rockwell and his own changing world,” Plunkett said.
Beyond, “Norman Rockwell: Private Moments for the Masses,” the museum also features “Inspired: Norman Rockwell and Erik Erikson,” an exhibit that examines how the artist and the psychotherapist influenced each other’s work, which opens on Saturday. “Woodstock to the Moon: 1969 Illustrated,” also opens this weekend and it gives viewers a look at how illustrators like Rockwell portrayed their times and reflected on popular culture.
Starting at 11 a.m. on Saturday, the museum will host several opening-day events. First up will be conversation and brunch with Sue Erikson Bloland, the daughter of Erikson.
She’ll share memories of her father’s relationship with Rockwell. Tickets are $25 and $15 for members or $40 for program, brunch and admission.
At 1 p.m. there will be a family walk and talk, which explores the new exhibitions and is free with museum admission.
At 2 p.m. there will be a meet and greet with Peter Rockwell, Norman’s son and an accomplished sculptor and art historian. Free with museum admission.
Then, from 3:30-5 p.m. curators Plunkett and Jesse Kowalski will give tours of the new exhibits. Free with museum admission. For more information visit nrm.org.