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Behind the legal tussle: two iconic Rockwells

Norman Rockwell's painting "Blacksmith’s Boy — Heel and Toe.
Norman Rockwell Museum
Norman Rockwell's painting "Blacksmith’s Boy — Heel and Toe.

Although Norman Rockwell was a native New Yorker, it was his depictions of the simple rhythms of small-town New England that made him famous around the world.

So it is perhaps not surprising that the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield touched off a legal tempest this summer when it announced plans to sell two Rockwells – among 40 other artworks — to bolster its endowment and pay for renovations.

Rockwell’s sons have joined a campaign to prevent the auction, which could fetch more than $60 million. Earlier this month, a judge gave Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey more time to determine whether the planned auction is legal, delaying any sale until at least Dec. 11.


As the dispute plays out in the courtroom, here is a look at the history of the two paintings that Rockwell (1894-1978) donated to the Berkshire Museum.

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“Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” whose worth has been estimated at $30 million, is one of Rockwell’s most beloved works. It appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on April 29, 1950.

Rockwell’s inspiration was Rob Shuffleton’s barbershop in East Arlington, Vt., where the artist lived before moving to Stockbridge, Mass. In a video history of the painting, the Post says it is notable for its use of contrasting light, which made the dark shop the focus.

The work portrays a place frozen in time, worn by the years and infused with dignity: the sagging barber’s chair, old coal stove, worn shop broom, and “Remember Pearl Harbor” poster. The shop is closed, and in the back room, a band plays. (Shuffleton is the violinist.)

To capture that level of detail, Rockwell asked an assistant to photograph the scene, according to the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. In his 1960 autobiography, Rockwell recalled that “there were details, accidents of light, which I’d missed when I’d been able to make only quick sketches of a setting . . . where Rob hung his combs, his rusty old clippers, the way the light fell across the magazine rack.”


Rockwell produced the other work, “Blacksmith’s Boy — Heel and Toe (Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop),” to illustrate a short story about a horseshoe-forging contest in the Saturday Evening Post on Nov. 2 1940.

The scene captures the intense focus of the crowd — a grinning Rockwell among them — as the brawny smiths duel. “Both men were lost to everything now but the swing from the forge to the anvil, the heels to be turned and the toes to be welded,” the story reads.

Sotheby’s auction house expects the painting to bring $7 million to $10 million.

Roy Greene can be reached at roy.greene@