There is almost a Shaker aesthetic to the old Stockbridge, Massachusetts, studio where Norman Rockwell once worked. “One thing that surprises people, even our staff, is just how spare the space was,” says the Norman Rockwell Museum’s chief curator and deputy director, Stephanie Plunkett. “Rockwell was extremely neat. He cleaned up several times a day. Generally there wasn’t a lot of clutter around.”
The sparseness is still there in the old studio that has been on display for more than two decades. Hundreds of thousands of visitors have toured the one-room structure, seeing it pretty much as it looked at the time of the artist’s death in 1978. But beginning in May, visitors will have a new experience, one that Plunkett says will be more representative of “what Rockwell’s work life was really like.” Thanks to a cache of faded old negatives in the museum’s archives, the staff have been able to recast the studio as it looked nearly two decades earlier in October of 1960. That was the month when Nikita Khrushchev pounded his shoe on a table at the United Nations in New York, and by coincidence, Rockwell was at work in his studio on a cover painting based on a United Nations scene, The Golden Rule.
An over zealous photographer hired by the artist at the time captured the unfinished painting on film as it sat on Rockwell’s easel. Not only did he take pictures of the painting, but of everything else in the room as well.
For the past year, museum staff have been studying those photos and bringing all the pieces together to reinstall the studio exactly as it was. And the whole, as they say, is more engaging than the sum of its parts. Rockwell’s work life and personal life came together in his studio, and if you know what to look for, it can be seen in his finished works.
Visitors will now be able to view the unfinished painting that depicts the Biblical injunction: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (The Golden Rule painting eventually appeared on the April 1, 1961 cover of The Saturday Evening Post.) Around Rockwell’s easel viewers will see mounted some of the model photos and magazine pictures the artist was using for the people in the painting. Some faces were simply transferred from the original, unfinished U.N. drawing, which can be seen on the floor of the studio. Others, notes the curator of archival collections, Corry Kanzenberg, were modeled from Rockwell’s Stockbridge neighbors. “His assistant’s daughter was the model for the girl at the bottom of the painting with red hair, holding a rosary,” she says. The Rabbi with the big white beard at the center of the painting was actually Stockbridge’s retired postmaster. Rockwell added the beard and the religion; the man was actually a Catholic.
In the top right-hand corner of the painting, one can see Rockwell’s most personal touch, he has added the image of his late wife, Mary, who had died the previous year. She is holding their first grandson that she never lived to see.
Numerous mementos of Mary appear in the old photos, Kanzenberg says, including an abstract pastel painting she had created for an art course. The original no longer survives, but a local artist was hired to paint an exact replica from the single old faded color transparency that existed of the painting.
Other items that needed replacing, says Kanzenberg, included an old Philco radio and a large cylindrical tobacco can seen on a desk by the west wall. The staff located identical items on eBay. The old radio still worked.
For an added touch of authenticity the exhibit now even features sound—a mock broadcast will play the favorite music the artist liked listening to on the radio as he worked perfecting his paintings—all opera.
“People who were there recall Rockwell listening to opera as he worked,” Kanzenberg says. “We have been having fun figuring out what opera he might have heard.” The program includes selections from Verdi’s Nabucco that premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in October of 1960 as well as recordings by Emmy Destinn and Enrico Caruso, performers Rockwell actually interacted with as a young art student when he worked part-time as an extra at the Met.
As they listen to the music, visitors will tread a new path through the studio over a hand-dyed rug, an exact reproduction by the same company that made the studio rug Rockwell used for years. “We are allowing visitors to move into the central part of the room, where before they were only able to walk along a straight path,” says Plunkett. “I think it’s going to be a lot of fun because they can really see interesting details, such as all of the materials that were on his desk where his secretary answered his fan mail. They can see the writing on the wall around his Princess telephone including his analyst’s phone number. It will be a more intimate experience.”
The new studio exhibit, A Day in the Life: Norman Rockwell’s Stockbridge Studio, is one element of the Norman Rockwell Museum’s 40th anniversary celebration. In July, as part of the special year marking the museum’s founding in 1969, American Chronicles, a traveling major retrospective of Norman Rockwell’s life and work, will return to Stockbridge from July 4 through September 7 before continuing on around the country. Also in November, the museum will launch the “first wave” of its Project NORMAN online digitized archive, making 40,000 items from its 200,000-item collection of photographs, objects, and documents available to scholars and the public worldwide at the Museum’s Web site.