Norman Rockwell Museum: Nostalgia, History and More

Guest post and photographs by Jamie Rhein

The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts is more than a Rockwell showcase. The museum is a shout out to the art of illustration–most specifically, the last 50 years. Although Rockwell is the main man, others take a bow in exhibits specifically dedicated to their work. Some pieces took me back to my childhood.

Norman Rockwell’s, “Save Freedom of Worship” and the cover art by Frank Schoonover for the novel, Heidi.

There was the artwork used for the cover of Heidi, the novel by Johanna Spryi. Frank E. Schoonover created this piece in 1924. Although the copy of Heidi that I owned was not this version, Schoonover’s illustrations pay tribute to the books that helped children fall in love with reading. Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, Treasure Island and Ivanhoe are a few of the classics that Schoonover took on with lush colors in adventure scenes come to life.

These and much more are part of the 80 original pieces of Schoonover’s on display until May 27, 2019. When this exhibit ends, another will take its place.

Schoonover, who lived from 1877-1972, is also a testament to travel as an inspiration. One of his trips, a 1,200 mile journey on snowshoe, dogsled and canoe through Canada and Alaska helped inform his work. One work is the art for Jack London’s short story, “To Build a Fire.’

Rockwell’s work is a trip through slices of Americana and relationships with family and community at the center of what is important. He captured American life through snapshot moments, most known through his Saturday Evening Post covers.

Starting in 1931, Rockwell did 322 covers in all. Each are on display at the museum. The two covers of two different girls are among my favorites. One who looks as if she was in a fight waits to see the principal. In the other, a young girl contemplates herself in a mirror. The doll abandoned on the floor and the fashion magazine in her lap evokes thoughts of the cross from childhood to adulthood.

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Along with the finished artwork, there are examples of Rockwell’s process. One example is the piece, “The Gossips.” Rockwell created pencil sketches from photographs of actual subjects. The photos are on display, as well as, the sketches and the Saturday Evening Post cover.

The photographs and the drawings used for “The Gossips”

Even though Rockwell’s subjects mostly evoke feelings of nostalgia and a smile, there is the uncomfortable. Instead of sugar coating America, Rockwell did brings issues into the open. One example is of the young, pig-tailed Ruby Bridges wearing her white dress being escorted to school by federal marshals during school integration in 1960. “The Problem We all Live With” is a testament to bravery of this very young American, and our arc towards justice.

Interactive slides about Rockwell’s life.

In addition to Rockwell’s work, there is a video and an interactive kiosk with slides depicting significant times in Rockwell’s life. I particularly liked seeing him in different parts of the world.

Unfortunately, when I visited the Norman Rockwell Museum, Rockwell’s studio was closed. Open seasonally, April 28-Nov. 12, the studio is set up as if it’s 1960, the time Rockwell that painted “The Golden Rule.”

To get a sense of his studio, head to the room set aside for children. Here you’ll find examples of Rockwell’s work and a place for visitors to try their hand a making art.

*This post is dedicated to my dear friend Janet Farrell (Sept 19, 1959-March 20, 2018) on this first day of spring. Janet, who loved Norman Rockwell’s work and embodied the Golden Rule her entire life, first told me about this museum years ago.