Norman Rockwell’s portrait of Vermont

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(Host) VPR continues our Great Thoughts of Vermont series with a look at Norman Rockwell’s Vermont-flavored art. Rockwell lived in West Arlington at the height of his career and died in 1978. Here’s commentator Tom Slayton.

(Slayton) Although Norman Rockwell was once viewed as a pariah in the world of fine art, his reputation has recently undergone a modest rehabilitation. He is now seen as a contemporary descendant of such humorous fenre illustrators as William Hogarth and John Tenniel, and a master of the craft of realistic painting. Favorable reviews of his work have appeared in the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine.

Such are the fashions of the art world. A direct look at Rockwell’s life work shows us a New Englander, with a New Englander’s moral sense, who continued to endorse the old verities of small-town America, even as that world became more complex. His work is both naive and charming.

He was born in New York and later became a committed New Englander. He lived in West Arlington, Vermont, and later in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. His popularity grew and grew during those years. He celebrated the iconography of everyday New England, demanded utter visual realism, and used his Vermont neighbors as his models.

His work got better over time. His early Saturday Evening Post covers are mostly caricatures – slapstick exercises in broad comedy. But by the 1930s and 40s his humor, never subtle, became gentler and more complex.

And though he stayed in the American mainstream, toward the end of his life, Rockwell could crusade in his own gentle way for a cause he believed in: racial equality. His 1964 painting “The Problem We All Live With,” focuses on a small but self-confident black girl (wearing a prim white dress that emphasizes her purity) being escorted to school by four anonymous, gray-suited federal marshalls. The composition, color scheme and brushwork all emphasize the girl’s calm equanimity and the justice of her quest for equality. It’s narrative art, but a lovely, surprisingly subtle piece.

Perhaps more characteristically, Rockwell’s work chronicles rural America in the mid-20th century. The detail in “Shuffleton’s Barber Shop” documents that fine all-male institution as it existed in the 1950s, probably in Vermont. “Marriage license,” from about the same era, shows a young couple applying for their license under the sadder-but-wiser, bemused eye of the local town clerk. In many of Rockwell’s best illustrations, his “naive and wholesome manner” triggers a knowing, involuntary smile.

Perhaps our modern world has left behind Rockwell’s unwavering endorsement of a gentler time and mainstream values. We have become more complex, more sophisticated, more ironic, and probably less sure of ourselves. It’s harder for us to endorse the simple verities of “The Four Freedoms” and other Rockwell classics.

Yet we yearn for them and need them. Especially in an era in love with ironic hipness and sophistication, Rockwell’s idealism, his faith in a flawed America, and his celebration of the commonplace wonders of small-town life are refreshing. They are also a part of New England’s legacy – and Vermont’s.

Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine.

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