Norman Rockwell and the news

Imagine what it would be like if newspapers today commissioned paintings to run on their color pages?

In honor of throwback Thursday, I offer a question I first asked in a column on Jan. 8, 2009. I have visited the Norman Rockwell Museum many times since then, often on the track of a story. But then it was new.

This weekend, I became a tourist. My parents came up to see me. In between crossword puzzles at my kitchen table and Malaysian fried rice at Flavors Restaurant, we took some time to do some things I have never really done before. I knew about them; I have written stories about them, but I had not yet given an afternoon to them. Now I have warmed my hands around a coffee cup at the Red Lion Inn, and wandered down the Mary Flynn trail along the railroad tracks and then — visited the Norman Rockwell Museum.

I had seen some of Rockwell’s drawings; you can’t live most of a dozen years in the Berkshires without seeing them. The bright colors were familiar, the good-natured expressions, the almost photographic precision of the details. But walking around the museum gives more than that, as it should.

When you see a collection of paintings, you see the painter’s patterns and habits, just as you can find a poet’s if you read a collection of her poetry. You learn more from the artist’s thoughts about the work — I can’t get the light coming through that window to look translucent. And you learn from the works of his colleagues — a charcoal sketch of a middle eastern coffee shop, where a ship captain sits at a table with men in fezes framed by a Morrocan arched doorway, and where the menu on the wall is in Arabic but the newspapers are in English.

Hung side by side, paintings talk to each other. By himself, a Boy Scout feeding Irish setter puppies is gentle; when a fleet of World War I posters hang on the other side of the same wall, you may find yourself thinking how much the Boy Scout’s uniform looks like the fighter pilot’s, and how young the Boy Scout looks wearing it, and how vulnerable the puppies are.

You learn from the artist’s background too, if you happen on a gallery talk, and the speaker knew Rockwell, and his family, and people who posed for him, and people who once dated the people who posed for him, back in high school. You learn something about his ways of thinking and working.

What stood out most clearly for me was — Norman Rockwell worked in the news business. As an illustrator, he worked for magazines and publications. He worked in my world. He was working on deadline. He had to think up new scenes and images regularly, without pause. His lines and colors had to reproduce clearly on a printing press. And every image had to tell a story.

He could not just say ‘hey, look at the afternoon light on those icicles‘ — though the light might be beautiful, even piercing. He could not be abstract. He had to talk about the people and environment around him.

But he could and did give background and fill out his images with details that carried weight. Parents look down at sleeping children, and one holds a newspaper with violent headlines. A neighbor peers through a curtain as two black children and two white children meet on a sidewalk in Chicago half a century ago, friendly and curious, with a dog and a baseball glove between them.

This story, updated here, first ran as a By the Way column in Berkshires Week in January 2009, in my time as editor there.

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