For a man identified so closely with small-town America, Norman Rockwell spent much of his life living in or near America's biggest city. He was born in New York City in 1894, and did not move to a small town - Arlington, Vermont -- until he was well into his forties. He spent the final 25 years of his life in Stockbridge, Massachusetts and this is where his museum is located.
Illustrating the American experience
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Audrey Manring is director of communications at the Rockwell Museum. She says he often asked people he knew to pose for him. "I think at the very beginning of his career he used some professional models. But over time, he relies more and more on, and then relies exclusively on, his friends and neighbors. And there was a very meaningful connection between people who live around him and pose for him," she says, "They really feel they are part of something special."
Claire Williams once posed as a model for an advertisement that Rockwell illustrated. It happened 50 years ago but the memory remains fresh in her mind. "Many times he would call you himself to come and model," she explains, "He picks up the phone and just calls you and sets a time and you go. It was fun."
In addition to being a keen observer of people, Rockwell was good at capturing the beauty and the humor in the seemingly ordinary. He once said, "If there was a sadness in this creative world of mine, it was a pleasant sadness. If there were problems, they were humorous problems."
Art with a message
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Perhaps Rockwell's most representative works are the more than 300 covers he made for the Saturday Evening Post.
His series Four Freedoms was inspired by a speech President Franklin Roosevelt's gave during World War II about the four fundamental human freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear.
But he did many other works that are equally popular: his American presidents series, his boy scouts series, the quaint small town depicted in Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas, and his humorous Triple Self Portrait.
In 1963 Rockwell ended his partnership with the Saturday Evening Post and struck up a new association with Look magazine. His style of painting did not change, but the subject matter did. He focused more on sensitive social and political issues.
New Kids in the Neighborhood dealt with race relations in America. The black boy depicted in the picture was Wray Gunn. "It was the centerfold of Look magazine in 1967. This one particularly was dealing with the integration in an all-white neighborhood in Park Forth, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago as I came to know," Gunn said.
From the black children's white cat, to the white children's black dog, the busy work of the movers, and the neighbors peering out their windows in the background , each detail of the illustration creates an atmosphere of tension. Little did 13-year-old Wray and his seven-year-old cousin Tracy know that they would become a part of America's civil rights history.
Rockwell died in 1978, at the age of 84. In the years since his death, his work has retained its tremendous appeal. Every year hundreds of thousands of people flock to this museum to see the work of a man whose brush eloquently told the story of his America.