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Peter Rockwell, a sculptor and a son of Norman Rockwell, dies at 83

Peter Rockwell was occasionally involved with the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. Behind him is the 1946 work by his father titled "Boy in Dining Car," in which Peter was a model for the boy.
Peter Rockwell was occasionally involved with the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. Behind him is the 1946 work by his father titled "Boy in Dining Car," in which Peter was a model for the boy.NANCY PALMIERI

As a son of one of the nation’s most famous and beloved illustrators, Peter Rockwell confronted more than the usual challenges that face an aspiring young artist.

Aside from the creative shadow Norman Rockwell cast with his paintings and his enduring Saturday Evening Post magazine covers, he wasn’t particularly keen on his youngest son taking up sculpture.

“My father was very much against it,” Mr. Rockwell told the Salem News two years ago. “He said it was the worst way to make a living he could think of. But I got him to back down on that, and he helped me.”

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Living in Rome most of his adult life, Mr. Rockwell forged his own renown as an artist before moving to Massachusetts in recent years to be closer to family members, and to continue his sculpting, in a Beverly studio.

Mr. Rockwell, who once said “what I really wanted to do was sculpture, and that is what I’ve done,” was 83 when he died last Thursday in Kaplan Family Hospice House in Danvers, according to information posted on the website of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.

His sculptures are on display around the world, including on the Boston College campus, where his “Tree of Life” — some 10 feet tall — was unveiled in 2004.

Other examples of Mr. Rockwell’s art can be found in places such as Rindge, N.H., where his work is part of the Women’s Memorial Bell Tower in Cathedral of the Pines.

His sculptures are also on display at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., in Rome, and at the Norman Rockwell Museum.

In the catalog accompanying “The Fantastical Faces of Peter Rockwell,” his 2009 retrospective at the Stockbridge museum, he spoke of how he had initially resisted contemplating a career in art – a pursuit that was “too much in the family.”

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Mr. Rockwell’s brother Jarvis exhibited an installation at MASS MoCA in 2016. His older brother, Thomas, is an author of children’s books.

“My father thought I was going to be the sensible member of the family,” Mr. Rockwell was quoted as saying in the catalogue’s profile, written by Stephanie Haboush Plunkett, the museum’s deputy director and chief curator.

His father’s wishes were not to be.

Mr. Rockwell initially majored in English literature at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, but as a junior, “I announced I was going to be the least sensible member of the family.”

In Rome, he divided his time among sculpting, teaching, and writing books, after having spent some time working as a tour guide earlier in his career as an artist.

Mr. Rockwell’s wife, Cynthia, who was known as Cinny, died in 2013. He told the Salem News that he had moved to Beverly in October 2017 to be closer to their daughter, Mary Faino of Danvers.

Mary told the News that she chose an assisted living facility that was near Clay Dreaming Pottery Studio, where Mr. Rockwell continued to work, because walking had become difficult for him.

“I don’t know why, but my legs always feel better when I come into this place,” he said during that March 2018 interview in his studio.

The path to getting his legs under him, artistically speaking, wasn’t always easy, however.

Born in New Rochelle, N.Y., on Sept. 16 in 1936, Peter Barstow Rockwell was the youngest son of Norman Rockwell and Mary Barstow Rockwell.

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Three years later, the family moved to Vermont, where Peter grew up and graduated from the independent Putney School in Putney, Vt.

It was there that he met Cynthia Ide. They married in 1958 at Connecticut College in New London, Conn.

Life as a son of a revered artist could be difficult.

“It would be dishonest of me to pretend that I have not at times been irritated and angry with my father, as well as feeling at times in competition with him,” Mr. Rockwell told the Globe in 1973.

Indeed, his father’s work ethic — he was known to work 12 hours or more every day — inspired Mr. Rockwell to live his life differently.

“My father never kept one day a week free for his family, but I never work on Sunday and I try to take off two months a year to be with my family,” Mr. Rockwell said in the Globe interview. “I don’t see art as all of life. I don’t stand or fall on my capacity as an artist.”

While studying at Haverford, Mr. Rockwell was seriously injured in a fencing accident that, according to the Rockwell Museum, punctured his heart’s lining and required months of recuperation.

His college years also included running a bookstore in Stockbridge with his brother Thomas.

Upon graduating with from Haverford with a bachelor’s degree in English, Mr. Rockwell studied sculpture at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

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In the early 1960s, he and his wife traveled to Italy. “I went there on a grant from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and just stayed,” he told the Globe in 1970.

He and his wife settled in Rome, where their four children — Geoffrey, Tom, and the twins Mary and John — grew up. Along with translating art history abstracts, his wife had served on the board of the Rockwell Museum — a role their son Tom also filled.

The subjects of Mr. Rockwell’s sculptures ranged widely and included acrobats (“I have always been fascinated by circuses,” he said for the retrospective catalog) and monsters.

The National Cathedral commissioned him in the early 1970s to design and carve gargoyles — a subject he returned to in his work over the years.

Often fanciful and even playful, the monsters he sculpted “seem to me a wonderful way of combining the abstract with the realistic,” he said for the catalog. “A monster could have two noses and three mouths and yet you still see what it is.”

Mr. Rockwell also wrote or coauthored books, among them “The Art of Stoneworking," “The Unfinished: Stone Carvers at Work on the Indian Subcontinent,” and “The Compleat Marble Sleuth.”

“We will miss Peter and his ebullient creative force,” the Norman Rockwell Museum said in a statement. “We are grateful for his lifelong involvement with the museum. Just last summer he delighted a crowd of visitors with a tour of his sculptures on the museum grounds.”

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In addition to his four children and two brothers, Mr. Rockwell leaves four grandchildren, according to a death notice his family prepared.

A funeral service is planned for May in St. Paul’s Within the Walls, an Episcopal Church in Rome.

When Mr. Rockwell was a boy, he posed for many of his father’s illustrations. As an adult, portraits were part of his artistic repertoire, too, though he brought a sculptor’s eye to how he wanted his subjects comport themselves in the studio.

“When someone poses for you, you don’t want them to be quiet,” he once said. “You want them to talk, you want their face to move, because that’s what we see in a person — all different expressions.”



Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.