by Brooke Chilvers
The last time I spent time with Norman Rockwell’s work was the year O.J. Simpson was acquitted on two counts of murder. Despite the beauty of autumn in the western Berkshires, it took rooms full of Rockwells to lift my spirits.
The same thing happened last week at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley’s exhibition, Norman Rockwell’s America. With no spring in the air and the news of our people and planet as dire as ever, each iconic image brought smiling eyes to my (masked) face.
Although Rockwell’s early work included illustrations for Boys’ Life, Country Gentleman, and Life magazines, his interpretation of our American way of life is epitomized in his covers for The Saturday Evening Post. Between 1916 and 1963, Rockwell created 322 of them. His vision of ourselves and our neighbors carried us through two world wars, the Depression, and the poignant agonies of the awakening of our nation to civil rights, exemplified by works such as The Problem We All Live With (1963).
As I’d just seen the year’s first fishermen on the Shenandoah River, I looked for the theme of fishing in his work, recalling that Rockwell (1894–1978) was born and raised in New York City. Once he had some money in his pocket, he moved to New Rochelle, NY, then to Vermont in 1936, and spent his last 25 years with his third wife in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, home of his museum.
In our present virtual and Zoomed reality, Rockwell’s depictions of fishing remind us of when this hands-on activity was a formative part of youth, of bonding within families and between generations. There is purpose and sanity in a rod and bait.
The blue discus-backed Contentment on the August 18,1926 cover evokes the feel of a good chew in your mouth, old clothes that belong on your back, and the assurance that the fisherman is bringing home dinner.
The cover of the August 3, 1929, Saturday Evening Post is a bit of an exaggeration, with grandpa wearing a three-piece summer linen suit and bow tie, setting down his briefcase to pull in a trout; but the July 19,1930, cover reminds us that such grandpas with their pipes, potbellies, and tall tales really existed.
On April 29, 1939, Rockwell’s love of the irony of pleasure is in full play. Here, in the era before Trakker Downpour jackets, the forlorn fisherman in his dingy deliciously christened Sport, sits in the pouring rain, his bright yellow raingear pulled up against his ears. His precipitation-filled pipe has flipped upside down, and there’s no fish in the orange bucket despite his five o’clock shadow.
By 1945, the magazine cost ten cents and the April Fool cover is brightly colored. A crazed fisherman in snow skis, in the company of an alligator and a cormorant sporting a tuxedo collar, has caught a conspicuously blue lobster in a tin of plum tomatoes; Rockwell’s signature is upside down. In fact, there are 50 “mistakes” if you want to find them. Still, the headline reads: Death March In a French Courtroom, for the story by civil rights advocate George Slaff who, interestingly, also served two terms as mayor of Beverly Hills.
Rockwell also created images for Brown & Bigelow calendars. Summer 1961 brings not only a grin but a squeeze of the heart as you recollect the men you’ve known in soft hats bedecked with the day’s fishing flies, when waders were seriously thick and heavy, and the creel was still a wicker, not a plastic, basket. Quoting Rockwell: “The purpose of a picture for a calendar differs from… a magazine cover… You do not wish to startle but to create something which is quiet, pleasing – and enduring… and the characters pictured should be people you would like to know or with whom you would like to live.”
Here, against a posterboard-white background, the father, son, and mutt-eyed family dog spring in an arc from the lower-left to the upper right of the canvas. There is no landscape, no setting other than a suggestion of grass. It is the bright light of full summer that fills me on this gray, damp day. The boy in the painting looks just like my oldest brother did in 1961. Sulphur butterflies have landed on dad’s boots and on the boy’s rod. There are yellow butterflies everywhere.
Brooke Chilvers learned that by the time this piece was posted, the forsythias in Clarke County, Virginia were in bloom.