Norman Rockwell in Vermont became known for his paintings of small-town life. But it wasn’t until the fall of 1938, when he bought an old farmhouse in Arlington, Vt., that he got a much-needed restart for his art.
Rockwell, then 44, and his wife lived in New Rochelle, N.Y., with their three boys. Rockwell was well established by then. He had started out as the art director for Boys’ Life at 19, and his Boy Scout calendars were hugely popular. On any given day, it was estimated, 1.6 billion people looked at the calendar. By the time he bought the farm in Arlington just a few miles from Robert Frost’s home, he’d been illustrating The Saturday Evening Post covers for 20 years. His subjects were mostly vignettes of contemporary and colonial American life.
Norman Rockwell was immune to the charms of the Green Mountains. He had no interest in the trout stream, the deer, the red barns or the foliage. During the 14 years he lived in Arlington he never painted a landscape. Once, he was fishing with a friend who commenting on the fantastic view. “Yes, isn’t it beautiful?” Rockwell said. “Thank heavens I don’t have to paint it.”
He was more interested in diners, doctors’ offices and schoolhouses, like the one his sons attended. He met Mary Whalen, his favorite model, when he sat next to her at his son’s basketball game and gave her his Coke. He had trouble painting the black eye in Triumph in Defeat, so a newspaper ad ran requesting a child with a black eye. Wire services picked up the story, and Rockwell offered $5 for a ripe one. A prison warden wrote that there’d just been a riot and he had dozens of black eyes and a father joked he’d give all his kids a black eye for $5. A toddler named Tommy Forsberg had acquired a shiner, and his father drove him from Massachusetts to the studio of Norman Rockwell in Vermont.
Nor did he adapt to Yankee ways. He was a New Yorker, more inclined to have Coca-Cola for breakfast than pie. He didn’t plant a garden, didn’t swim in the river. He did paint other people swimming. Of this 1945 The Saturday Evening Post cover, he said, “George Zimmer was an awful good sport. He stripped and I poured several buckets of water over his head to get the effect.” It was his favorite kind of painting, one that traced the course of an action over time. The salesman, said Rockwell,
…took off his clothes but not his shoes, spread a newspaper on the grass and laid his glasses on it: then, at the water’s edge took off his shoes, waded in, and just before submerging, carefully laid his lighted cigar on his shoe, ready to be puffed the minute he emerges from the stream.
It was in Arlington that he began to paint small town life and move away from characters in tricorn hats and ruffled shirts. Vermont gave him a fresh vision.
Marbles Champion was his first painting in Arlington, a vignette of a bold little girl challenging two worried little boys. It is one of his most enduring paintings, now in the collection of filmmaker George Lucas. Rockwell followed Marbles Champion with such immensely popular works as Four Freedoms, Rosie the Riveter and The Runaway.
Rockwell was inspired to paint The Runaway by his neighbor, Richard Clemens, who happened to be a Massachusetts State Trooper. Clemens gladly posed with another neighbor, Eddie Lock, in 1958. The two didn’t see each other again until 1971, when they sat next to each other in a class at a community college. The painting was staged at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Pittsfield, Mass., but Rockwell removed all traces of the chain.
World War II broke out while Rockwell and his family were living in Vermont. He painted an 11-part series for The Saturday Evening Post about an ordinary soldier named Willie Gillis. He spotted the model, 16-year-old Robert Otis Buck, at a square dance on the West Arlington village green.
In 1948, one of the Rockwells’ neighbors started an ugly rumor about him. He got his revenge by painting the gossips, which started out with a few people and then expanded to include much of the adult population of Arlington. He started to worry that the cover would offend his neighbors, so he included himself and his wife. Rockwell is the second-to-last image, giving the neighbor a piece of his mind. She reportedly never spoke to him again.
Rockwell and his family left Arlington in 1953. His home is now a bed-and-breakfast, The Inn on Covered Bridge Green. They moved to Stockbridge, Mass., which also had the ambience of a small New England village. The artist would work there until his death in 1978. His Stockbridge studio is now part of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.
During his lifetime, the modern art world dismissed Rockwell as kitsch. He was sensitive to that criticism, and defended himself in 1962 with the remark, “No man with a conscience can just bat out illustrations. He’s got to put all his talent and feeling into them!”
In the late 20th century, Rockwell’s work enjoyed a revival, even among the literati. In 1999, the art critic Peter Schjeldahl said of Rockwell in ArtNews:
Rockwell is terrific. It’s become too tedious to pretend he isn’t.
With thanks to American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell by Deborah Solomon. This story was updated from the 2014 version.