Awards & Honors: 2008 National Humanities Medalist

Norman Rockwell Museum

When Laurie Norton Moffatt was a college docent at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, thirty-one years ago, she witnessed people waiting in lines for hours for the chance to visit the then-tiny historical society that housed the largest collection of Rockwell’s paintings. “I was struck by this public affection, and at the same time, I was in traditional art history classes with professors, who, if they even put Rockwell up on the screen with one slide, did so with a certain amount of derision and scorn. This juxtaposition just didn’t equate,” says Norton Moffatt.

Norton Moffatt, now director and CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum, has overseen the museum during a period of significant growth. The museum has recently moved into a new building, designed by Robert A.M. Stern. It has acquired Rockwell’s letters, photographs, much ephemera, additional art, his archive, and finally the artist’s complete studio. It has become a center for the scholarship of illustration arts and a venue for showcasing new illustrators. Every year dozens of its exhibitions travel throughout the country, while the museum itself hosts more than 150,000 visitors.

“One of the hallmarks of our galleries is that they are really really noisy,” notes Norton Moffatt. “People talk. They laugh. They stand in front of the paintings, point and gesture. And we love that because people are really engaged with the artwork.”

Rockwell’s illustrations, which graced the covers of the ubiquitous Saturday Evening Post for nearly fifty years, had been out of fashion with art critics, who regarded them as cliché and overly sweet when juxtaposed against the abstract modernist movement. Rockwell was unable to cross the hard cultural line from illustration to fine art. That started to change in the 1990s when critics began to reevaluate what for decades millions of fans already knew—that images such as Freedom of Speech, The Problem We All Live With, or The Runaway combined insights into human nature with the precision of a classically trained artist. They had become icons of American culture. “One of his best pictures is Freedom from Fear,” commented illustrator Brad Holland. “It is simple and unrhetorical. It is like Vermeer: a genre painting that rises to the level of philosophy.”

Norman Rockwell had in fact studied Old Master paintings when he was training at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League in New York City. By age eighteen he was working as an illustrator and art editor, following in the steps of great style-setting illustrators, such as Howard Chandler Christy and J.C. Leyendecker. In 1916 at twenty-two, his first Saturday Evening Post cover, Boy with Baby Carriage was published. It was through this publication that Rockwell would become a household name across America, his covers reflecting the nation’s history as it went to war or struggled through the civil rights movement. “Rockwell found hidden fragments of beauty in the chaos of life and helped us recognize the moments of common grace,” says Norton Moffatt.

Rockwell’s grace was especially appreciated following 9/11. The museum had launched its first major traveling exhibition in 1999, and it was back at its home in Stockbridge. It was scheduled to appear that winter at the Guggenheim. After the attack, “New York came to a standstill,” says Norton Moffatt. “There were no flights in or out, and the Guggenheim couldn’t get its next exhibition in from Brazil. They asked if they could have the Rockwell exhibition a month earlier than scheduled.” The Rockwell museum staff dropped everything, took the paintings off the walls, and hustled them to New York for a November 3 opening: the Guggenheim then recorded its largest attendance for any art exhibition, even without international tourism. “I think it was very healing for the city at that time,” recalls Norton Moffatt.

“These emotional snapshots will always be potent to a large audience,” comments Peter de Sève, an illustrator who serves on the museum’s board and whose own work can be found on covers of the New Yorker and in animated films such as Finding Nemo and Ice Age. “Rockwell is an adjective for things that are quintessentially American, and for things that we want to be,” he says. De Sève points out that the generation that actually experienced the history shown in Rockwell’s painting is shrinking. Yet Rockwell’s images continue to touch new audiences.

Even before Freedom of Speech was chosen to be a part of NEH’s Picturing America program, the Norman Rockwell Museum has been using Rockwell’s art to teach American history to schoolchildren and provide an introduction to art appreciation. A telling incident came during the last week of school last spring, when Norton Moffatt took The Problem We All Live With (a painting of first-grader Ruby Bridges being escorted to school in desegregated New Orleans) along with Ruby Bridges’s book to a community reading. “There was one child in the front row who just couldn’t put his arm down, he was so eager to talk about the painting,” says Norton Moffatt. “Afterwards, the teacher said to me, ‘There isn’t any way you would know this, but that child didn’t speak all year.’” Norton Moffatt says, “He has a very difficult home life and a very difficult time in school, and this painting was a breakthrough for him. I was so humbled by that.”

By Amy Lifson