The Gold Standard: Restoring the luster to Norman Rockwell's studio

Although there is no record of Norman Rockwell donning an African dashiki or sitting in a lotus position chatting Om while painting in his Stockbridge, Massachusetts, studio, he is a man who kept up with the times. Despite his wholesome view of an America that was unfailingly patriotic, family-centered, pious, and small town in focus, he did paint candid canvases that depicted the killings of Civil Rights workers (Murder in Mississippi, 1965), ugly epithets scribbled on a wall as a six-year-old black girl is escorted to a public school (The Problem We All Live With, 1963—borrowed by President Obama for the Oval Room), and a boxing scene of a tough femme fatale chastising a felled boxer slumped in a provocative pose that hints at the relationship between the two outside the ring (Strictly a Sharpshooter, 1941).

Norman Rockwell studio, Stockbridge, MassachusettsBut perhaps his best known politically charged painting is The Golden Rule (1960), which depicts a United Nations amalgam of people gathered, chorus like and somber, around the saying that Rockwell actually painted on the canvas, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” As Rockwell himself commented on the work, which hangs in the museum, “The thing is that all major religions have the Golden Rule in common. Not always the same words but the same meaning.” The wall plaque relates some other tantalizing cocktail party chatter, such as the fact that the model for the rabbi at the center was the retired (and devout) Irish Catholic postal master of Stockbridge, that many of the African and Asian figures were exchange students in town, and that a young Jewish boy seen holding Torah scrolls was the visiting nephew of a town resident. In fact, the work was painted to commemorate the still-nascent United Nations. A later (and inferior) ceramic version, made by Venetian tilemakers, was installed at the United Nations in 1985, on the occasion of the organization’s fortieth anniversary.

For years, visitors to the very studio in which Rockwell completed many of his hundreds of illustrations, paintings and drawings entered a cozy, barn-like structure that was left exactly as it was when he donated it to the namesake museum in 1976, two years before his death. By then, many of the inspirations that he hung on his walls, just behind his easel, included things like African masks and textiles, Asian Buddhas and Indian miniatures. But officials and curators at the Norman Rockwell Museum decided last May that they may have had enough of Black and Buddha Power, deciding instead to refurnish the studio to exactly as it appeared in 1960, while Rockwell was completing The Golden Rule. One reason for doing so was that a detailed photo existed showing Rockwell in the studio with the now iconic canvas on his easel—and, perhaps, too, because 1960 represented that pivot point between the idealized America he painted and the real one that was visible on TV news every night.

Down came the images of the carved wooden idols with pointy breasts and exaggerated appendages and the contemplative Buddhas with rolls of belly fat and up went photographs and reproductions of the very works Rockwell had previously kept in sight for his own artistic inspiration: Western Art. Shots of Michelangelo’s horned Moses and the ever-fetching David, a Pieter de Hooch Golden Age scene of domestic Dutch life (a period that inspired The Golden Rule?), Brueghel’s peasants in a (drunken) reverie.

Refurbished Rockwell studioWhen visiting the studio now, the docent on hand holds up two dog-eared black-and-white photos, as if they were crime scenes being shown to witnesses on the stand. “This is the studio he occupied on South Street in town,” she says, “and this is the building when it was moved to this site in 1986,” she says, revealing a shot of the building on a flatbed truck that makes it look any double-wide on its way to a new trailer park. Only when pressed to comment on the change of the studio décor does she admit that, yes, items were changed to resemble the 1960 look of the space and every item on display is original (apart from the smoking pipe and rugs, which are  reproductions), as if there is something slightly tawdry in having made the change. To scan Rockwell’s bookshelves is to find monographs on the likes of Giovanni Bellini, Daumier, Manet, Vermeer, and Titian, along with The Boy Scouts Handbook and Scouting With Daniel Boone—and arranged exactly as he had left them. A 2007 detailed survey of the items in the studio listed more than 3,000 objects, which includes every eraser and toothbrush. And when the building was re-erected on this site, some four miles from town, it was oriented exactly to the light as when Rockwell painted inside it.  

Norman Rockwell has long been derided as an illustrator rather than a painter (as if the two are distinguishable and as if one is lesser than the other, which is not the case. Tell that to the late art critic Hilton Kramer, who was practically giddy as he threw editorial paint at Andrew Wyeth by calling him an illustrator). Yes, upon visiting the Rockwell museum, a building that is as architecturally distinguished as a Colonialesque drive-in bank, you will confront his main audience: mall-goers who debate whether Thomas Kincaid (the late “Painter of Light”) was better. But when you look at Rockwell’s works, you realize that he, along with Andrew Wyeth, is one of America’s greatest and most nuanced painters. Rockwell’s people are often eerily beautiful, particularly the young men he chose to paint—noble Boy Scouts (Cub, Boy, and Girl scouts are offered a museum discount), strong college football players, even the ancillary male figures in the iconic Saying Grace (1951).

What for so long has been considered American kitsch has morphed into American culture. And rightly so. These are narrative paintings as charged with meaning and plot as any Renaissance canvas depicting a chapter and verse from the Bible.

The Golden Rule to observe with Rockwell is to not dismiss him. Like an alchemist, he was able to take a moment in American life—a farm son about to board the bus to college (Breaking Home Ties, 1954), a young veteran spinning a battlefield yarn in a garage (Homecoming Marine, 1945), a family heading on a vacation in their woodie station wagon (Going and Coming, the cover for a 1947 issue of The Saturday Evening Post—and if you want so see real humor in a painting, look at the face the boy in the back seat is making to a passing motorist)—and turn it to gold. He is among our most valuable commodities. And to visit the actual room in which he worked, surrounded by his rotary phone and plastic radio tuned to a station, his brushes and his throw pillows is is to have found a source of gold.  —David Masello