I always make a point of grabbing the newel post and sliding up my hand on the stair railing when visiting the homes of artists, writers and historical figures. I’ve written about doing this at Ernest Hemingway’s Key West house, at Mark Twain’s Hartford, Connecticut house, and at Robert Frost’s farmhouse in Derry, New Hampshire. I had the opportunity to do it again when visiting the Norman Rockwell Studio in Sturbridge, Massachusetts recently. This to me is a handshake with those who came before, and I feel it most profoundly when I visit the places like these where the giants of the past did their greatest work.
If you live in America you know Norman Rockwell. His paintings and sketches are more widely known than any other artist in the 20th century, thanks in large part to his work with The Saturday Evening Post during some of the most significant milestones of that century. Rockwell was capturing the very human moments everyone felt during the Great Depression, World War’s I and II, the Kennedy Assassination, etc. The museum carries you through his work and is worth a visit. I’ve driven by it for decades before finally stopping by for an hour while driving home from New York. Seeing his paintings doesn’t give me the same feeling as seeing Aivazovsky’s The Ninth Wave did, but that’s largely because there’s a humbleness to Rockwell’s work that doesn’t inspire awe as much as appreciation for the incredible detail he put into his work.
There’s a story of the painting Country Doctor, which when published on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post inspired letters from people asking about the woman in the photograph on the doctor’s desk. It seemed she looked like a nurse that had treated patients in England during World War II, and a soldier wrote to ask if she was in fact the same woman…. and was. Such was the detail in Rockwell’s paintings that a random detail in a larger work, shrunk down for the cover of a magazine, sparked recognition. Rockwell apparently made his subjects, mostly his neighbor’s in the Berkshires, laugh while painting, and there’s joy in most of his work.
I appreciate art, and linger in the museum longer than I should have on my trip home, but for me standing in the space where Rockwell created that art was more impactful. That space is his studio, moved four miles from downtown Stockbridge to a hill overlooking the Housatonic River and the Berkshires in 1976. Rockwell gifted the studio to the Norman Rockwell Museum, and the studio is set up as it would have been in 1961 when Rockwell was painting Golden Rule, which seems appropriate for an artist who’s work reflected that rule. The space is largely the same, if transported from its original foundation in the heart of Stockbridge. The staircase to the loft is roped off, but the newel post and railing are in reach, like a handshake with Norman. And that sums up his art; within reach of everyone. Simple but complex, and beloved, like the artist himself.