Heritage Museums & Gardens Unveils Major Norman Rockwell Exhibit

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By: Michael J. Rausch
Published: 05/04/12

An American icon comes to Sandwich.

From May 5 through September 3, Heritage Museums & Gardens will present a major exhibition of the works of Norman Rockwell.

The exhibit is titled “Norman Rockwell: Beyond the Easel” and features more than 150 of the renowned illustrator’s artworks. Sponsored by Arbella Insurance, the exhibit is the first major show of Norman Rockwell’s artwork that has ever been shown in this part of the state.

“We don’t know if the MFA turned up its nose at this great art,” Heritage Museums & Gardens Executive Director Ellen Spear joked. “It is a wonderful opportunity for people all over this end of Massachusetts to see America’s best-loved illustrator’s work.”

The exhibit is broken up into several sections. The first is called “Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera.” This section reveals Rockwell’s fascination with photography and his use of models in his paintings.

Visitors will see how Rockwell meticulously positioned a person or a group of people in a photograph, and then adapted that posed photo for the story his illustration was telling “He worked like a movie director and posed his models in a variety of poses,” Ms. Spear explained. Close-up photos of models are juxtaposed with the well-known illustrations in which they are inserted. Rockwell even used himself on occasion, his face among the crowd, much like Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo appearances in his films.

It is a wonderful opportunity for people all over this end of Massachusetts to see America's best-loved illustrator's work. 

            - Ellen Spear of Heritage Museums

Another section is called “Picturing Health: Norman Rockwell and the Art of Illustration.” This section showcases rare, original Rockwell oil paintings commissioned by pharmaceutical and medical firms. The paintings were used for advertising and explored doctor-patient relationships, physical fitness, and health and healing.

In Heritage’s automobile collection, several vintage cars that are featured in Rockwell paintings are on display. A 12-minute biographical video, narrated by Rockwell’s son, Peter, is played on a continuous loop.

“I thought this was a good statement about Heritage’s mission, because what we do here is celebrate American culture,” Ms. Spear said. “What better person to celebrate American culture than Norman Rockwell?”

Born in New York City in 1894, Norman Rockwell began drawing as a child, creating pictures of the characters in the Charles Dickens novels read to him by his father. At the age of 16, he left high school to attend art school and by 19 he was the art editor of Boy’s Life magazine.

He was 22 when his first illustration appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post, a publication he became synonymous with for nearly 50 years. Between 1916 and 1963, he created 321 covers for the magazine. His final cover for The Saturday Evening Post was a portrait of President John F. Kennedy, published just after Kennedy’s assassination.

Visitors to the exhibit will see Rockwell works that feature the quaint scenes of Americana he is so closely associated with: the local barbershop; a family closing up their summer home; nervous fathers in a hospital waiting room.

Some of the surprise paintings reveal Rockwell’s fascination with space and technology, and his examination of social issues. “The New Impossibility” celebrates the 1969 moon landing with astronauts on the lunar landscape. “New Kids in the Neighborhood” made the cover of Look Magazine in 1967 and features a group of white children confronting two black children who are moving into their new home.

“Blood Brothers,” done in 1968, shows a white man and a black man lying in the street, blood pouring from beneath them. It was the one illustration of Rockwell’s that Look Magazine rejected. “Very difficult subject matter,” Ms. Spear said, explaining the magazine’s decision.

“Rockwell’s politics were definitely liberal,” Heritage’s Director of Collections and Exhibits Jennifer Madden said, explaining that since The Saturday Evening Post was politically conservative, leaving the Post allowed him to explore and present his political leanings.

Rockwell moved to Stockbridge in 1953, where he lived until his death in 1978. He once said of Stockbridge that “it is the best of New England, the best of Massachusetts,” and in 1976, the town claimed him as its hometown hero. Upon his death at the age of 84, he left behind a legacy of more than 4,000 paintings, drawing and studies, many of which make up the exhibition now on display at Heritage Museums & Gardens.

Ms. Spear said that the hope with the Norman Rockwell exhibit is that “people will begin to think of Heritage of a place where they can come to see great exhibitions.”

“Rockwell is a terrific, uplifting artist, and we think that he inspires people to talk to each other, and what we’re about is people who share a passion for something coming together and talking and learning together.”

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