It was raining when I entered the community of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I drove slowly on Route 102 – known locally as Church Street, searching for the entrance to the community’s cemetery. Where Route 102 turned sharply to the left and became Main Street, I found the entrance to the Stockbridge Cemetery.
As I drove slowly through the cemetery, I knew I was passing many important figures of history who rest within the borders of this sacred piece of land. I could easily have spent hours wandering the cemetery in search of diplomats and congressmen, of authors and artists, and of folk figures and soldiers. Despite the cemetery being a “Who’s Who” of regional and world history, I came in search of one particular grave – the most famous grave located on the historic grounds. I could see the grave I sought standing among the well-trimmed hedges, near the rear of the cemetery, just off the roadway.
The rain had momentarily stopped and I quickly got out of the vehicle and I walked through the wet grass to the stone. On the side facing out of the hedge the name “Rockwell” verified this was the grave I sought. Stepping carefully around the family stone, I studied the back of the stone, which listed Norman Rockwell at the top followed by two of his wives: Mary Barstow Rockwell and Mary Punderson. On the ground, resting between his two wives is the marker for the American painter, whose works have become a major part of the American culture.
Norman Rockwell was born in New York City on February 3, 1894, the second child of Jarvis and Anne Rockwell. At the age of fourteen, Rockwell left high school to attend Chase Art School, which is now the The New York School of Art. He would later attend the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League. Before his sixteenth birthday, Rockwell had been commissioned to produce the design of four Christmas cards. At the age of eighteen, Rockwell made his breakthrough when he illustrated Carl H. Claudy’s Tell Me Why: Stories about Mother Nature.
Rockwell was hired by Boys’ Life, the official magazine published by the Boy Scouts of America, to do a cover plus story illustrations each month, beginning with the September 1913 edition. At the age of nineteen he became the art editor for Boys’ Life, a position he held for three years.
When Rockwell was twenty-one, he moved to New Rochelle, New York with his first wife, Irene O’Connor. While in New Rochelle, he shared a studio there with Clyde Forsythe, who made a huge impact on Rockwell. Forsythe worked as a cartoonist for The Saturday Evening Post and with Forsythe’s help, Rockwell submitted his artwork to the magazine. The May 20, 1916 issue of The Saturday Evening Post featured Rockwell’s first cover piece entitled “Mother’s Day Off.” In that first year, he was featured a total of eight times and within the next forty-seven years he produced three hundred and twenty-three original covers for the magazine.
His popular covers had him in demand and he painted covers for other popular magazines of the time. Included in these magazine covers was a return to Boy’s Life in 1926 and also for the magazine of the American Red Cross.
In 1930, Norman and Irene divorced and Rockwell left New England to stay with Clyde Forsythe who was living in California. That same year, he met and married Mary Barstow and the couple returned to New Rochelle and eventually settled in Arlington, Vermont, where Rockwell’s paintings began to reflect America’s small-town life. They had three children: Jarvis, Thomas, and Peter. In 1953, the Rockwell family moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts where he spent the remainder of his life.
In the late 1940s Rockwell was an artist-in-residence at Otis College of Art and Design while continuing to produce covers for The Saturday Evening Post. It was in 1943 that Rockwell would reveal The Four Freedoms inspired by the words of President Franklin Roosevelt. The paintings escaped the fire that destroyed his studio in 1943. In 1994, The Four Freedoms would be featured on a souvenir sheet of United States postage stamps.
Rockwell produced his final cover painting for The Saturday Evening Post in 1963. He turned his attention to Look magazine, where his work for the next ten years depicted his interests in civil rights and poverty.
In 1958, Rockwell would have the honor of becoming the first inductee into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame. Rockwell lost his wife in 1959 when she died suddenly of a heart attack, Norman took time off from painting to work on his autobiography, My Adventures as an Illustrator, published in 1960. The year after publishing his autobiography, he married Mary “Mollie” Punderson a retired teacher, who survived him, passing in 1985.
His last commissioned work for the Boy Scouts of America was for a calendar. The piece, entitled The Spirit of 1976, was finished when Rockwell was eighty-two years old and was the final piece of a partnership that had spanned sixty-four years.
In 1973, Rockwell placed his works in a trust controlled by the Old Corner House Stockbridge Historical Society, which would later become the Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge. In 1976, Rockwell, concerned about his failing health, turned his studio and its contents to the trust.
In 1977, Rockwell was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States of America’s highest civilian honor. Due to Norman’s poor health, Rockwell’s son Jarvis accepted the award from President Gerald Ford.
Rockwell died on November 8, 1978, of emphysema at his home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He was eighty-four years old.
I finished paying my respects and for a moment debated wandering around the cemetery in search of other note-worthy graves, but the darkening sky told me this would have to wait for another day and another journey. I left the grave site and walked back to the vehicle as the rain began to fall.