Christmas Day is on December 26. That’s what I thought my whole childhood, and even as an adult I continued to confuse it with the 25th. It’s because every year we went up to Pop’s house in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the day after Christmas. Christmas at my grandfather Norman Rockwell’s was the highlight of that special season. They were the most magical Christmases of my life.
The memories are accompanied with such a vivid sensory awareness. We’d be greeted by Pop and my step-grandmother, Molly, at the kitchen door. The comforting smells of their cook Virginia’s food would surround and embrace us instantly. I would rush in to see the Christmas tree, running through the pantry, then through the hall with the creaky floorboard under the Arthur Rackham pen and ink, into the living room where I would stand in silence before the tree with its fresh pine scent. My favorite ornament was the little, gold guitar with actual strings and rhinestones, and I would search for it every year. The scent of the crackling fireplace in the library — where the adults would have their whiskey sours and the children would have ginger ale — hung in the air throughout the comfortable colonial house. I loved the after-dinner “job” of putting the candles out with the snuffer and watching the smoke mysteriously drift upwards from the extinguished flame. But what stays with me the most powerfully is the intoxicating scent of Pop’s pipe after he lit it, sitting in his big red armchair to the left of the fireplace. To this day on the rare occasion that I happen upon that scent, I am arrested by it and instantly taken back.
People would send my grandfather gifts every year. I remember winding up a music box in the bottom of a Scotch bottle and being entranced by the tiny Scottish dancer in a kilt turning to the tune of “Loch Lomond.” The Russian nesting dolls in the library were my favorite toy that I would play with faithfully, taking each doll out carefully and putting them together in a perfect lineup.
Norman Rockwell’s Christmas paintings are some of his most charming and heartening. His connection to Christmas was deepened in his childhood by his Uncle Gil, an eccentric inventor and scientist. Uncle Gil would bring firecrackers at Christmas to celebrate the Fourth of July, Christmas presents on Easter, and chocolate rabbits on Thanksgiving. The next year he would turn things upside down again and bring chocolate rabbits hidden in his pockets for the children on Christmas. Uncle Gil was a character straight out of Charles Dickens [http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2015/12/09/art-entertainment/art-and-artists/rockwells-dickensian-series.html], the great storyteller that had such a profound influence on my grandfather and his work. And I think somehow Uncle Gil became the embodiment of the Christmas spirit and this always stayed with Pop. He painted his memory of Uncle Gil in Little Boy Reaching in Grandfather’s Overcoat for The Saturday Evening Post cover, January 25, 1936. The little boy is my father, Thomas.
Home for Christmas (or, Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas) was painted for McCall’s December 1967 issue. It is one of my favorites. The main street of Stockbridge today still looks much the same. The little secret of the painting is the house with black shutters on the far right with all the windows illuminated and smoke coming out of its chimney — that was my grandfather’s home, with his barn red studio next to it, where we spent every Thanksgiving and Christmas. I still dream of that house.
It is easy to get lost in the details of this painting. It is full of life, movement and Yuletide festivity: children playing, shoppers with packages rushing home, cars in transit, people going into the library. But it is the less noticeable details that have always captured my interest. Some windows have candles in them, others don’t but instead have their blinds drawn. Some cars are parked correctly; others are a bit askew, presumably because the snow has erased the lines. I love the visible car tracks in the snow and all the different makes and models of automobiles; the newest one of that Christmas looks a bit like the Volkswagen Beetle, the blue car just left of the darkened inn.
The Red Lion Inn was closed at this time because it had fallen into neglect after one owner, Robert Wheeler, had misguidedly attempted to refashion it as a “motor lodge.” His endeavor failed and the inn went dark, intended for demolition in 1968; a gas station was planned in its place. It was saved by the Fitzpatrick family who purchased the inn that same year; they have run it ever since. Stockbridge is a small town of tradition and neighborly kindness and community — it is what Pop loved about it. That, and the wonderful townspeople he found to paint.
My grandfather’s first studio in Stockbridge was in the building with the big plate glass window with the Christmas tree. It was his studio from 1953–1957. He had the picture window installed to get the north light. At the very far left of the painting is The Old Corner House, the original site of the Norman Rockwell Museum, the white colonial with porch windows.
Pop painted the landscape with a delicate, primitive feel, choosing to layer somber transparent tones of grays and browns. The sky is the perfect cold winter sky after the sun has quickly set. All of these bleak colors serve as a contrast to the brilliant yellow light of the bustling town and vibrant Christmas decorations. It is through this important sense of contrast that the meaning of the holiday season is quietly illuminated — finding the light at the peak of the darkest month.
Many holiday blessings to everyone for a wonderful Christmas and Hanukkah! May the light we find in this season carry us through this next year and usher in a time of increased kindness and peace — in spite of everything we are facing around the world right now.
P.S. I just gave the Norman Rockwell Museum Archives my finalized, detailed list of the numerous errors and omissions in the recent fraudulent biography of Norman Rockwell, American Mirror, published in 2013. As many of you know, it is because of this biography that I was compelled to start my “Rescuing Norman Rockwell” Facebook page. The extensive list is not just a refutation of falsifications based on my investigation of the primary sources — it presents a true portrait of my grandfather and his life, including many details and memories that I learned from my father, Thomas Rockwell, Pop’s middle son. It will serve as a guide for future Norman Rockwell biographers and scholars. I am happy that this page that started out as a fight to have the truth heard has ended up being a celebration of Norman Rockwell and his work.
Special thanks to Laura Claridge for her comprehensive research in her 2001 biography, Norman Rockwell, A Life. Her biography was a considerable help to me in my investigation.
I recently was going through our family computer files and found this arresting painting of a little girl that my grandfather did circa 1922 that I had never seen before. It took my breath away. I couldn’t find this image in Norman Rockwell: A Definitive Catalogue by Laurie Norton Moffatt. I posted it on my Facebook page on January 1, 2015, not knowing its title, date, or story. From those who commented, I found out that it is titled Young Valedictorian and was most likely painted for the remarkable Edison Mazda series (1920–1927). I believe it was rejected by Edison Mazda, a division of General Electric, because it does not show the source of the ethereal and dramatic light. It illuminates the little girl in such a way that it recalls Rembrandt, one of my grandfather’s guiding beacons.
It reveals a young girl at her graduation — an initiation, a passage — a Holy Communion of sorts. The elders behind her appear somewhat pleased but are not quite present, a bit distracted. She, on the other hand, is very much present and standing in her newfound power, on the cusp of the next unknown chapter in her life. She stands at the edge of the stage. She holds the symbol of her knowledge in her hands, but she is much more than her diploma. My grandfather painted this around the time that women won the right to vote. She seems to stand for this new, exciting chapter in every girl’s and woman’s life. Note the extraordinary care Rockwell took with the individual ruffles in her dress, the diffused light on her face, the glorious light shining down on her expansive bow, turning it into a crown … the light gently hitting the top of the globe beside her. The world of possibility is hers.
This painting is on display at the National Museum of American Illustration, run by Judy and Lawrence Cutler, a wonderful museum in one those classic mansions from another era in Newport, Rhode Island. You will find Parrish, Leyendecker, Rockwell, Pyle, among others there. I spoke with Ms. Cutler in my quest to find out more about the mysterious painting. It may be titled Young Valedictorian, but my grandfather never titled his paintings, the titles came later, thought up by editors, etc. It is one of the few works of Rockwell’s to apparently remain unpublished; that is why it is so unknown. A spring drive down to Rhode Island may be in order.
Warmest wishes. As always.
Every day is Mother’s Day. None of us would be here without them!
For some of us whose mothers are no longer here, it is a wistful time. Yet, they are still with us. She is there in the daffodils and crocuses she planted years ago that rise out of the ground every year to welcome the spring. Your mother is there in the music you shared — perhaps that special song she sang just for you at bedtime. They will always be here, part of the fabric of our beings and lives. Even the mothers who were not able to be present and available to their children because of difficulties — they play a part in forming you, teaching you to seek out what is missing and go on a journey to find it, no matter what.
I stumbled upon this striking painting of my grandfather’s a few weeks ago. I chose this image specifically for Mother’s Day because it is not remotely sentimental — something my grandfather is frequently accused of being. It is simply a masterfully executed illustration of maternal care. It’s entitled Red Head — an illustration for a story of the same name by Brooke Hanlon that appeared in American Magazine in November 1940:
“No doubt Linda had meant to hold young Tim gingerly, fearfully, but that sort of holding was never part of young Tim’s plans …”
Red Head is a stunning study of black, white, and gray tones — gradations of gray — with the only flashes of color being the bright pink of the tulips on the floor, the delicate red of the boy’s hair, the blush tone of the blanket and the deep rose of her lips. There is a coldness to the palette.
The woman, quite rigid, is softened by the little boy in her arms and the awakening of her innate need to protect and nurture him. The choice of hat is fascinating — a fedora that is almost masculine, yet there’s something elfin in its shape. It reminds me of a hat Garbo once wore in a film. It adds to the guarded quality about her. The profile of the hat reflects the silhouettes of the cameo portraits on the wall. Cameos reveal just so much, only a profile, mirroring her somewhat masked emotional state. The magic of the painting is that it is static but very much alive — this is a turning point in this woman’s life, a softening, a shift. The overturned table and scattered flowers illuminate this. The empty stairs reaching upward with the swirling banister indicate movement, rising above the circumstances below.
Norman Rockwell would try out new techniques throughout his career — to stay current, to try to avoid his paintings registering as outdated. Al Parker, known as the Dean of Illustrators, led a new wave of illustrators in the 1930s, including Coby Whitmore and Jon Whitcomb. My grandfather employed some of the techniques from this school — the stark contrast of colors, the pronounced use of white and pastels — to try to keep up with the young upstarts! I personally love the wedding of opposites in the painting, the starkness married with the awakening tenderness — moving beyond the tumbled past into something with promise and possibility.
Warmest wishes and gratitude to all moms,