Another Side of Norman Rockwell

My father and I recently visited the wonderful Normal Rockwell Museum in picturesque Stockbridge, Mass. The main exhibit halls hold hundreds of examples of Rockwell’s optimistic, patriotic, and often humorous paintings and illustrations, most of which were first shown on covers of The Saturday Evening Post

In one particularly popular room are the four Rockwell paintings known as “The Four Freedoms” – inspired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s January 1941 State of the Union address to Congress. In that speech, Roosevelt enumerates four freedoms necessary to maintain universal rights. The series of paintings includes Rockwell’s archetypal scene of American Thanksgiving: a family at the dinner table with the matriarch serving an enormous roast turkey to a table full of smiling people.

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One of Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms,” this painting is known as “Freedom From Want.” From the website of the Normal Rockwell Museum.

Titled “Freedom From Want,” the 1943 Thanksgiving image is among Rockwell’s best known, and is also among his most visually optimistic, offering the clear message that Americans have access to – or deserve to have access to – the kind of plenty promised by the vast resources of its lands and communities, an image emerging from the stereotype of the earliest Colonial Thanksgiving celebrations. Given the unchecked optimism of this one work, and the many upbeat works elsewhere in the exhibit halls, I was not prepared for what I found at my next stop on the museum’s beautiful western Massachusetts campus.

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Rockwell worked in Stockbridge in a two-story studio with large north-facing windows to capture the gentle, consistently “sweet” light that studio artists prefer. Sometime after his death in 1978, the entire building was moved from the center of Stockbridge to the site of the museum, where those large windows now overlook a gorgeous valley vista.  Working from dozens of old photographs, the museum faithfully finished the studio as Rockwell himself had finished it when he was working there: a large easel with a comfortable chair nearby, a table for his pipe (and whatever else he needed at hand), a large glass-topped palette (with paints at the ready), and the large windows now overlooking the valley. 

Among the features of the preserved studio are bookcases along one wall. One bookcase is jammed with books about other artists and their work – and one of those books is about Käthe Kollwitz. Kollwitz (1867-1945) was a German artist and lithographer active during the first half of the 20th century. She became especially active after the horrors of World War I, a war of devastating global scale, but also on a personal scale for Kollwitz, whose younger son died in the war. She worked extensively with prominent themes of that horrible conflict – loss and brutality among them.

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“Germanys’s Children Are Starving,” by Kathë Kollwitz, is found in a book on the shelves of Norman Rockwell’s restored studio in Stockbridge, Mass.

Kollwitz’s work eventually developed to include such heart-rending pieces as “Germany’s Children Are Starving” and her well-known “Death” cycle. In one piece of the 1930s “Death” cycle, Death itself is shown as a colorless self, gathering up children in its arms.

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“Death Reaches for a Group of Children,” or “Tod Greift in Kinderschar ,” by Kathë Kollwitz, is found in a book on the shelves of Norman Rockwell’s restored studio in Stockbridge, Mass.

That a book of Kollwitz’s work can be found on Rockwell’s shelves is remarkable. The contrast is dramatic between Kollwitz’s work and the body of upbeat work for which Rockwell is perhaps best known. It is tempting to believe that Kollwitz could be an antithesis to Rockwell, with the German artist focusing on death, loss, brutality, and the American artist largely skirting those topics in the bulk of his work. It is not immediately clear how Rockwell could consider Kollwitz any kind of influence, or why he would keep a book of her work.

A docent serving at the studio one recent Thursday afternoon offered an observation that helps link Rockwell and Kollwitz, expands a simplistic understanding of Rockwell the man, and broadens general knowledge of his later work.

The Saturday Evening Post had a practice, the docent said, of using covers by Rockwell to show the best of America, and Rockwell was skilled at answering that call. The magazine also had guidelines, the docent said, about how people of color – and controversy involving people of color – were presented on their covers. That practice and those guidelines limited the prolific Rockwell, or perhaps more properly directed him toward the images for which he is now best known: mostly happy people in non-threatening circumstances. It was not until 1963, when Rockwell began working for Look Magazine, that he was able to offer a more realistic – or less idealized – view of his nation, and to address subjects of deeper moment, including civil rights and poverty.

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“The Problem We All Live With” is on display at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. It was among Rockwell’s first works that directly addressed a deep controversy: in this case, segregation.

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In June 1964, three civil rights activists were brutally murdered in Mississippi. Soon after, Look commissioned an investigative article about the incident; it was to be called “Southern Justice,” and the magazine asked Rockwell to produce an illustration for it. The result was “Murder in Mississippi.”

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“Murder in Mississippi” was an early piece Rockwell produced for Look Magazine. From the website of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.

In the drawing, an African American man is clinging to a white man, while another man lies on the ground, with the shadows of unseen people marking the ground near him. The work is monochromatic, with one version worked in a sepia tone, and another using the black, white, and gray of pencil on paper; on both, the only color is red: a small patch of blood on the shoulder of the African American man leaning on the white man. For reasons I have not learned, neither the story by Charles Morgan Jr. nor the illustration by Rockwell – scheduled for the June 29, 1965, issue of Look – were published.

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Of course, Kollwitz was not simply an inverse of Rockwell, and neither was Rockwell simply an inverse of Kollwitz; they shared significant values and sentiments. In one examination of Kollwitz’s motivation, it is suggested, “She was an advocate for those unspoken for and liked to portray the working class.” It could equally apply to Rockwell that he portrayed archetypes of working class Americans – people sidestepped by much of popular culture (or for whom he developed a Rockwellian culture); he placed them in situations that were sometimes amusing, and were at other times desperately serious, such as his powerful mid-1960s piece “The Problem We All Live With” (which was published by Look) portraying the deep resistance to the racial desegregation of the New Orleans public schools. 

It would be equally true that Kollwitz had the freedom to express the darker sides of human behavior, particularly with two series: The Peasant War (about a violence-racked uprising in southern Germany during the Reformation) and Death – whereas Rockwell had been handcuffed for years by the Post guidelines, and perhaps also by his continued practice of painting upbeat and humorous depictions of modern life. Certainly, for much of his career, Rockwell had none of the freedoms Kollwitz worked with, none of the latitude available to her – at least until beginning his work for Look. A close look at Rockwell’s entire career illustrates the increasing complexity and depth of his work – and offers a look at another side of Norman Rockwell.

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The Norman Rockwell Museum is located at 9 Glendale Road in Stockbridge, Mass. Because of peculiarities with some GPS systems, it can be hard to find. Check the website for reliable directions.

The main exhibition halls are open 7 days a week, year-round, while Rockwell’s studio is open from May to October (and until 7 on Thursdays through August). Parking is free; admission ranges from free (for area teachers with school ID) up to $20 per adult.

The exhibit halls are easily accessible to those with mobility issues; there is an elevator between the two floors, and wheelchairs are available. The studio is also considered handicapped accessible. The museum offers a host of activities for children. There is a well-stocked bookstore. There is also a cafe, open May to October. 

The museum can be reached at 413-298-4100.

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