Rockwell’s art and times

  • Rockwell’s large-format “Four Freedoms” paintings have returned to Stockbridge following a two-year tour that included the Memorial de Caen in Normandy. “Freedom of Speech,” above, was a 1943 illustration for The Saturday Evening Post. CONTRIBUTED

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    Rockwell's paintings overflow with detail upon detail and this painting suggests the promise of youth, the wisdom of old age and a celebration of sunlight. "Aunt Ella Takes A Trip" is a 1942 illustration for "Ladies' Home Journal." Contributed photo/Norman Rockwell Family Agency

  • “Freedom From What? (I Can't Breathe)” is a 2015 illustration by Pops Peterson. Contributed

  • In 1992, presidential candidate Bill Clinton attempted to make a lawyerly distinction as to his marijuana use while at Oxford University, as depicted by cartoonist Pat Oliphant. President Barack Obama later said, “When I was a kid, I inhaled frequently. That was the point.” Contributed

  • President Nixon was as bogged down with the Vietnam War as was his predecessor President Johnson. It was another four years after this Oliphant illustration that the Paris Peace Accords were signed. A 1969 cartoon for the Denver Post. Contributed photo/NRM collection

For the Greenfield Recorder
Published: 5/13/2021 4:06:36 PM

With six full galleries providing a sweep of the illustrator’s art from his early, immature works to the more reverential images he created as an adult, through May 31 The Norman Rockwell Museum provides visitors with a rare view of his body of work.

In “The Norman Rockwell Album” (Doubleday & Company; 1961; 191 pages), Rockwell wrote that he was born in “the back bedroom of a shabby brownstone in New York City.” At the age of 5, he attended Admiral George Dewey’s triumphal parade, celebrating his victory in the Philippines. “I made childish drawings of America’s warships,” he recalled.

Soon after, he wrote that he was to “discover my monstrous Adam’s apple, narrow shoulders, long neck and pigeon toes.”

Compensating for a dearth of athletic prowess, he became devoted to drawing. By age 13, he decided to become an illustrator, dropping out of high school in 10th grade.

Following schooling at such institutions as The Art Students League, by his early 20s, he was “up to his neck” illustrating young people’s magazines.

By his own account, five years were spent doing little more than drawing and painting youth for periodicals such as “Everyland” and “St. Nicholas.” Only “Boy’s Life,” now known as “Scout Life,” remains.

“(R)adio and the movies killed the rest; television buried them,” he recalled.

In 1916, “the boy illustrator” sold his first cover to the “Saturday Evening Post,” a relationship that would continue for 47 years. He is best known for those images and in the museum’s lower floor, The Stockbridge Room, you can view 323 covers he created for that now extinct magazine.

The magazine covers, however, are like a postcard to a painting. Newcomers to the museum are often surprised as to the size of the canvasses and the photographic quality Rockwell’s paintbrush can achieve. From a few feet away, a coal fire at a blacksmith’s shop seems to be alive. In a painting of a salesman cooling off in a stream, it seems that every straw and weed has been studiously rendered.

Well-versed in the classics, the iconic pose of “Rosie the Riveter,” a 1943 Post cover, mirrors the posture of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting of the prophet Isaiah.

An advertisement for Sun-Maid raisins mimics the lighting and composition that you’d find in Dutch Masters painting.

Rockwell was obsessively reliant on photography for his studies and made use of a Balopticon, a projection device used for enlarging or minimizing object size. The projection of a composition could then be traced upon a canvas prior to painting. (The vast, weathered mountains often found in Maxfield Parrish’s lush landscapes were no more than small rocks he found on his estate and made huge with the device.)

“The secret to so many artists living so long is that every painting is a new adventure,” Rockwell once noted. “The secret is not to look back.”

Turning paintingsinto photographs

A nearby gallery displays the work of the Berkshire artist Pops Peterson, an African-American who has a deep affinity with Rockwell. As we tour the museum, he explains that both he and the illustrator were born less than a mile apart in uptown New York. As teens, they also were in the same neighborhood of Harlem, less than a half-mile apart. Rockwell’s Stockbridge home was at 8 South St., whereas Peterson’s hair salon is at 7 South St. His building was formerly Finnerty’s Funeral Home, which made the arrangements when the illustrator passed away.

“So we moved from being three-quarters of a mile apart to a half-mile apart, to 25 yards apart,” the artist said.

Serendipitously, whereas Rockwell was often turning photographs into paintings, Peterson is transforming the artist’s well-known scenes into photographs.

Peterson noted that during Rockwell’s career with the Post, “They were not in favor of showing any people of color unless they were a maid, a porter, but he longed to do so.”

Blacks could only be shown in service jobs, yet the artist pointed out that Rockwell could be subtle. In a boxing scene, “Strictly A Sharp Shooter,” the arms of a black man steady a fighter. In a view of tourists inside the Statue of Liberty, at the very top, an African-American can be seen.

Peterson works in photo illustration and may be best known for an update of Rockwell’s “Freedom From Fear.” A black couple is putting their children to bed and a newspaper tucked under the father’s arm headlines “I Can’t Breathe.” This first referred to the 2014 chokehold death of Eric Garner on Staten Island. The image struck a chord and was reproduced in The New York Times, The Boston Globe and other publications and discussed on National Public Radio.

“I wanted to show, on my picture, that some people don’t enjoy all those freedoms,” Peterson said.

He updates several familiar Rockwell scenes with a new perspective. Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With,” a 1964 depiction of U.S. Marshals escorting the African-American Ruby Bridges to an elementary school in Louisiana is transformed. In Peterson’s creation, the same girl walks past the destruction visited upon Ferguson, Missouri following the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. It sparked riots in that city for more than a week.

The 1958 Post cover “The Runaway,” depicts a heavy-set policeman buying an ice cream for a small boy whom he is returning home. The counterman looks on knowingly.

In restaging the scene, Peterson attempted to procure a police uniform. According to him, the local constabulary “Freaked out. Copyright infringement. Will the museum sue us?”

He settled for a fire department uniform with a female officer, a boy of color and the counterman is Ed Locke, the original boy from 1958.

In viewing his collection, Peterson concluded, “I just don’t want to be known as the angry Black guy with a grudge. I like to celebrate beauty.”

The world accordingto Oliphant

Politics would be even more painful if there were no political cartoonists. This satirical art gained momentum in late 18th century England, although political caricatures can even be found in the ruins of Pompeii. For connoisseurs of the medium, there have been few brighter lights than the Australian expatriate Pat Oliphant.

“In the 70, 80s and 90s, he was probably the most prominent political cartoonist,” Stephanie Plunkett, the museum’s deputy director, said during a tour of the galleries.

“He did a tremendous amount of work for The Washington Post and what you’re seeing here is just the tip of the iceberg.”

The museum has received a donation of 300 of Oliphant’s pen and inkpot images syndicated in some 250 newspapers during his career.

With influences ranging from the English cartoonist Ronald Searle to Mad Magazine, his first job in America was with “The Denver Post.” Less than a year later he was syndicated and a few years later he won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning.

Although described as modest and unassuming, Oliphant’s pen can be acidic.

“He’s very literate and he was very frustrated by the press and the feeling that maybe the whole story was not getting depicted,” Plunkett said.

“Politicians are disgusting people, with some exceptions,” he said in a 2014 interview for The Atlantic.

The exhibit features former United States presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. Nixon was a cartoonist’s opium dream and is depicted with a nose resembling a large sausage or something even more Freudian. Clinton and his wife fare no better, at times depicted as hillbillies looting the White House and becoming more bulbous and overweight the longer they serve.

During his career, Oliphant railed at a decline in literacy, even among editors. Channeling a folklore hero to depict President Reagan sowing pollution from a seed bag, an editor asked “Who’s Johnny Appleseed?”

In the same interview, Oliphant said that he could no longer rely on Shakespearean tropes such as Hamlet.

“You can’t do that anymore,” he said. “You’ll get ‘What’s with this guy and the skull?’ We are in a forest fire of ignorance.”

The Rockwell, Peterson and Oliphant exhibits continue through May 31. Someday soon, dolphins will no longer be seen in New York’s East River, nor will fox and coyote trot the streets of Denver and the waters of Venice canals will again be murky. Until then, the museum requires that timed admission tickets must be purchased in advance through its website,

Masks are required. The museum is open Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The museum is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Adults: $20; ages 18 and under, free admission.

Don Stewart is a freelance writer who lives in Plainfield. He has written for the Greenfield Recorder since 1994.

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