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Cover to cover: Norman Rockwell’s renowned Saturday Evening Post art showcased at Mystic Museum of Art

Walking into the Mystic Museum of Art feels like traveling into the past.

Along the deep blue walls in the Davis Gallery are an array of images that capture this country during the early and mid-1900s with a gently humorous point of view and an appreciation for Americana.

A circa WWII solder, looking woozy with happiness, is waited on by two comely women, one wearing a USO armband.

A boy who could pass for Tom Sawyer is caught mid-cartwheel, his bare feet flung into the air. A woman dressed in a long white dress and straw hat plays croquet.

A 1926 illustration shows a boy and a girl — he with a thatch of red hair, she with pigtails — sitting on a rustic bench and staring at a full moon. His arm is around her waist, and she is leaning into him. A beagle looks dolefully toward the viewer. The title says it all: “Boy and Girl Gazing at Moon (Puppy Love) (Sunset).”

And then there is the 1960 “Triple Self-Portrait,” in which the artist leans to look at his reflection in a gilded mirror while he’s recreating his own likeness on paper.

These are all images by iconic illustrator Norman Rockwell that were published on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. All 323 of his covers from that publication — which ran from 1916 to 1963 — are displayed at MMoA in an exhibition that is organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. A timeline running around the top of the Davis Gallery walls details what was happening in the world at the time the covers were published.

The Saturday Evening Post, which was one of the most widely circulated and influential magazines in the country at the time, aimed to chronicle “American history in the making.”

The Rockwell covers indeed provide a look at America’s history — well, part of its history, at least. More on that later.

The exhibition was scheduled to come to Mystic in the summer of 2020, but the pandemic necessitated a postponement. “Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post Covers: Tell Me a Story” opens to the public on Saturday at MMoA.

One of the MMoA’s board members, Bill Hargreaves, who is a Mystic resident, also happens to be a member of the board at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. He thought it would be great to bring Rockwell works to Mystic.

At the time, MMoA Executive Director V. Susan Fisher was new at the museum, and she had been brought on with the mandate to convert the institution into a full-fledged museum. In doing so, she and exhibitions manager Amelia Onorato developed a plan for their first major year of exhibitions to have the theme of narrative art. That theme dovetails well with Rockwell; his illustrations each tell a story.

His illustrations also, though, showcase considerable artistry.

Fisher says one of her favorites covers is 1955’s “Marriage License,” in which a couple is at a town office to get a marriage license. It’s based on an actual office Rockwell was familiar with, and he knew the people who modeled for him.

“The painting itself could stand alone, in my view, for the lushness of the paint, the beauty of the composition — and the quality of light is just extraordinary,” Fisher says.

Rockwell often displayed a playful sense of humor in his covers as well. One of the pieces Onorato says she is fond of is “The Shiner,” in which a girl, looking disheveled as if she had been in a fracas, sits outside of a principal’s office, “looking so smug and proud of herself, and she has a huge black eye.”

Small-town imagery, big ideas

Rockwell, who was born in 1894 and died in 1978, wanted to be an illustrator from when he was quite young. He left public school early to attend art school, with future stops at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League of New York.

It was the perfect era for someone who wanted to be an illustrator. As MMoA notes, “Technical advances in papermaking and the reproduction of art made it possible to produce affordable art images for America’s growing middle class.”

Fisher says that Rockwell “was so single-minded. By the time he was 18, he was publishing images in Boys’ Life magazine. By the time he was 23, he had a painting accepted by the Saturday Evening Post for a cover. This is unheard of success.”

Fisher notes that, despite many people’s assumptions based on the imagery in his art, Rockwell wasn’t from a rural area but rather was born and raised in New York City.

“It was not until he moved to Vermont that he really started to focus in on small-town, everyday, ordinary life. That really became his niche, his domain,” Fisher says.

Later on, during World War II, Rockwell was deeply affected by a speech that President Franklin Roosevelt gave in 1941. Roosevelt spoke about the concept of the Four Freedoms: freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

Rockwell had made covers as part of the war effort but wanted to do more, and he was inspired to create paintings of the Four Freedoms. But it kept him up at night; as the Norman Rockwell Museum notes, he said, “It was so darned high-blown. Somehow I just couldn’t get my mind around it.”

By chance, he attended a town meeting where one man stood up and voiced an unpopular opinion. The other people listened to him with respect, and then the discussion continued. That really struck Rockwell.

“He realized he could illustrate all of these epic, idealistic themes just by portraying ordinary people,” Fisher says.

The result: an illustration of a couple putting their children to bed, as an image representing freedom from fear; a family enjoying Thanksgiving dinner, freedom from want; a young man speaking out among neighbors, freedom of speech; and people of all faiths in a single illustration, freedom of religion.

“It really became that small-town America wasn’t just a cliché for him. It was how he expressed the biggest ideas of his time,” Fisher says.

Rockwell’s focus on social issues

“It’s a misconception that Norman Rockwell was all sweetness and light. He confronted a lot of the insecurities of most of America, very upfront, in a lot of his illustrations,” Fisher says.

She mentions, for instance, an illustration of a young girl, with a glamor magazine open on her lap, looking at her own humble image in the mirror.

Fisher adds, “We are also highlighting that, at the end, he left the Saturday Evening Post after more than 40 years of dedicated service to them, for among other reasons, … that there was so much discrimination inherent in their editorial practices that he felt he had to leave. And it was not until he went to work for Look magazine that he did the very famous painting of Ruby Bridges being walked to school by federal marshals to desegregate her public school.

“In the latter part of his career, he emphasized social issues, the civil rights movement, and he was very interested in the exploration of space. These were subjects he had never been able to cover before.”

Including all stories

Rockwell isn’t the only focus this summer at MMoA.

“COVID highlighted all of the social inequities inherent in our way of life in the United States. It was very clear there were whole lifetimes whose narratives don’t enter into the national discourse,” Fisher says. “We felt it was incumbent on us, especially with a theme like narrative art, to embrace those narratives. As a result, the exhibition designed for Rockwell is, we hope, highly interactive.”

She says they want people attending the exhibition to talk to each other and share their narratives. Folks can also write down memories that are important to them or narratives they were interested in the exhibition, and so on. The museum will have a display space where visitors can share what they’ve written with other viewers.

The museum has arranged areas in the main gallery where visitors can chat. A couple of chairs are set up next to a table decorated with a decade written down and placed in a picture frame, along with possible topics from that era to prompt discussion.

Since Rockwell painted the world he knew — and there were narratives absent from his world — MMoA also decided to host a corollary exhibition titled “Missing Narratives.” Fischer says it is an important exhibition in its own right, of pieces by African-American artists. The selections are from the esteemed collection of Bill and Paula Alice Mitchell, who live in Westerly.

Fitting with the museum’s narrative art theme, these works tell stories about the artists’ experiences. In addition, MMoA will feature the Mitchells’ remembrances about encountering these pieces for the first time, along with stories they learned from the painters and sculptors about their art.

For everyone

The Rockwell exhibition also delves into some of the background on how he created his art. It showcases, for instance, how large his paintings were that eventually became Saturday Evening Post covers. A reproduction of the “Triple Self-Portrait” painting is shown in its 44.5-by-34.75 inch size, which is more than 500% larger than the cover. The exhibition notes that “painting this much larger than the final product ensures a crisp reproduction.”

(A fun side note: In the Terrace Gallery overlooking the Mystic River, MMoA has set up two versions of a chair, easel and mirror, where folks can create their own likeness, just as Rockwell did in “Triple Self-Portrait.”)

Rockwell was demanding of himself as an artist. A photo shows Rockwell with an array of different versions of a woman’s face he painted before settling on one.

The Rockwell works have a lot of different aspects that can draw people in.

Fisher says, “We think kids are going to love the playfulness and the detail. We think that parents are going to love the identification; he portrayed a lot of the challenges of family life and the joys of family life. As an individual ... I love the covers because of their narrative brilliance. And we think a lot of men are going to be interested in and attracted to these illustrations because of the historical detail they bring to the fore.”

If you go

What: “Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post Covers: Tell Me a Story”

Where: Mystic Museum of Art, 9 Water St., Mystic

When: Open to the public Saturday through Sept. 18

Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily

Admission: Special exhibition admission is $10 per person, free for museum members

For more info: (860) 536-7601, MysticMuseumofArt.org

 

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