ARLINGTON, Vt. — Would it surprise you to learn that, in the adopted hometown of Norman Rockwell, the Rembrandt of Main Street U.S.A., there’s hardly a main street at all? Arlington, Vt., where Rockwell holed up on a secluded farm for a good 15 years before, during, and after World War II, is a loose collection of buildings walled in by the Green Mountains, still barren last week awaiting spring bloom. There’s a white clapboard town hall, a restaurant, and churches — lots and lots of churches — all adrift on lawns with trees looming above. But there’s no streetwall, no lunch counter or Legion hall or barbershop or any of the quintessentially American backdrops that Rockwell painted with such affectionate verve. Time passes; things change. But in the sparse and wooded town center, barely a blip, it’s clear that it never was.
That’s a pretty fair lens for looking at Rockwell’s elaborate, idealized version of America. Rockwell spent much of his career pilloried by the art world establishment as a shallow fabulist, concocting jingoistic treacle while the realm of Very Serious Art concerned itself with the thoroughly modern project of tearing down and making over. (Among Rockwell’s mid-century contemporaries were Picasso, Matisse, De Kooning, Pollock and Rothko.)
Enamored of history, figure, narrative, and scene — “The story is the first thing, and the last thing,” as Rockwell once said, was maybe the closest he ever came to dogma — he fell victim to a moment furiously carving out a revolutionary future just as it erased the past, or at least viewed it with palpable disdain. Rockwell loved history, and not in the saccharin-simplistic way with which he’s been stamped. He revered the 16th century Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder and kept a copy of his “Peasant Dance” above the fireplace on the farm (the painting’s clusters of social scenes, its focus on ordinary folk, its array of expression and movement, are all elements of the Rockwellian oeuvre). He saw in the old masters a tradition of humanism that the swelling avant-garde, with its rough, gestural language and distaste for the human form, thoroughly lacked. Rockwell wanted to paint scenes of daily American life as Rembrandt had: With a mythic quality, elevating the everyday to something nearing the sacred.
Here’s the hard part, I know: Rockwell’s pictures are often goofy, cartoonish, kitschy, and cloying. Subtlety and nuance, even when clowning, were things Rembrandt had that Rockwell often lacked. And skill — however dizzyingly exceptional Rockwell’s was — is no free pass to the more complex realm of art, something N.C. Wyeth, one of Rockwell’s illustration contemporaries, knew all too well.
All that said, the taciturn artist, wounded by an establishment determined never to take him seriously, was workmanlike and committed, putting in days at the studio as though punching a clock on the factory floor. Rockwell had grown up in Upper Manhattan, a spindly and awkward kid firmly ensconced in the lower middle class. He was an abysmal student — maybe dyslexic, some believe, though never diagnosed. But, he could draw. Art, for Rockwell, wasn’t a poetic vocation, a transcendent pursuit; it was how he could make rent and put food on the table.
Starting early in his career, Rockwell made hundreds of cover illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post, which brought fame but also the freighted reputation as a maker of quaint, disposable images. By 1938, Rockwell’s prodigious output put him in a position to change direction, to at least try to follow the old masters he so revered. He and his second wife, Mary, then living in New Rochelle, N.Y., decamped for Arlington, where the Rockwell we know began to take more certain shape.
On the farm, Rockwell tweaked his cliched Americana. He had moved to Vermont very much for that reason: “(T)o counter a feeling of staleness in his work, to work with new models,” wrote Deborah Solomon, in her 2013 biography “American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell.” “Models who were not models, just ordinary people devoid of pretense.”
In New York, his models were professionals, captured in studio in precise poses by photographers. He would then paint from the photos and arrange different figures and objects in his narrative tableaux. (Rockwell worked almost exclusively from photos, agonizing over facial expressions, because he was too anxious and fidgety to paint from life.) In Vermont, Rockwell still painted covers for popular magazines, but the fairy-tale veneer of his earlier work started to make way for something more authentic.
His models were local townspeople, recruited not for their picture-perfection but their ordinariness, their truth-to-life. (In July 2018, some of his Arlington models held a reunion: Ruth Skellie, painted in her green dress and pigtails shooting marbles; Don Trachte Jr., as a child with Santa). “Going and Coming,” from 1947, one of Rockwell’s all-time best-known pictures, captures a family station wagon on its way to and from an outing at the lake (a “Bennington Lake” banner, just down the road from Arlington, flutters in the breeze on way home). It’s an Arlington picture through and through: A snippet of an idealized, utterly normal American life, void of pretense, abundant with joy.
Rockwell’s life in Arlington didn’t mirror the contentment of his pictures. Down a long country road and across a covered bridge spanning the Batten Kill River, Rockwell’s old farm nestles into a fold of the mountains, solitary but for a church spire 100 yards out. He often found it isolating and lonely, and Mary even more so, surrendering to alcoholism and depression to the point of hospitalization. (Rockwell’s 1953 move to Stockbridge, Mass., where his biggest, most enduring footprint in the Norman Rockwell Museum can be found, was motivated by a need to be closer to the Austen Riggs Center psychiatric facility, where Mary was an in-patient and Rockwell received treatment as well).
But Arlington gave him one very important thing, despite his various miseries. In 1942, a few years after relocating, he submitted some sketches to the Ordnance Department for the US Army for a series he contemplated for some time. Rockwell had already made one piece for the Army, of a machine gunner out of ammunition. But he wanted to do something more contemplative, less illustrative — something more like art.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had given a speech that year on his vision of a postwar world founded on four freedoms. Rockwell meant to embody them as a set of allegorical paintings, like the old masters, giving form to the ideals of American life: “Freedom from Want,” a multi-generational family clustered around the dinner table: “Freedom of Speech,” a rumpled-looking character speaking his mind in a crowded town hall; “Freedom from Fear,” of parents tucking a child into bed; and “Freedom of Worship,” a crowded scene of faces in profile overlaid with the phrase “each according to the dictates of his own conscience.”
Rockwell gave them allegorical scope; the townsfolk in Arlington gave them plainspoken, homespun universality. The Ordnance Department couldn’t commission them, but the Saturday Evening Post did. They became canonical works in a way the burgeoning American avant-garde never could: After their publication, the Post and the US Department of the Treasury announced a joint effort to use the works to sell war bonds, sending the paintings on tour. Once it was done, they had raised $133 million for the war effort. The Four Freedoms still stand as Rockwell’s magnum opus. A national tour of the works was in progress when the pandemic hit, and is scheduled to arrive in Stockbridge this fall (all things depending).
Were they a point of departure, from which Rockwell would ascend to his station as the master painter of American life, never again to be seen as a purveyor of kitsch? Hardly. The art world was soon to depart into ever-more obscure-isms — within a decade, Rockwell would share the title of America’s most famous artist with Jackson Pollock, anti-matter to his matter — that would serve as barricades to an art world determined to keep Rockwell and his kind out. With hindsight being 20/20, I’m inclined to wonder who was more relevant to a radically changing world: The rising disciplines of Minimalism and Conceptualism in the early 1960s, movements predicated on challenging art world hierarchies? Or Rockwell, whose embrace of the civil rights movement addressed real-world imbalance and civic strife — a realm the art world had all but abandoned.
More recently, there’s been a reckoning — a 2002 retrospective at the Guggenheim, that high temple of Modernism; another at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 2010. Critical revisionism has been on full display, though Washington Post critic Blake Gopnik sang a familiar song at the Smithsonian turn: “Rockwell’s greatest sin as an artist is simple: His is an art of unending cliche.” Maybe so. But don’t cliches become ingrained because they contain more than a dollop of truth? The 2002 show brought about a reconsideration partly because, in the fractured aftermath of 9/11, Rockwell’s tender folksiness comforted the country with a reminder of its communitarian ideals. In a moment now far more broken and divided, could we need Rockwell’s cliched comforts more than ever?
“Rockwell, Roosevelt, and the Four Freedoms,” organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum, is on a five-venue international tour, with the current leg at the Denver Art Museum expected to reopen as soon as guidelines allow. It will open at the NRM in Stockbridge in fall 2020. More information on the tour: www.rockwellfourfreedoms.org. For virtual offerings visit: NRM.org.