Museum visitors savor their brush with 'Shuffleton's' - and Rockwell's skills

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STOCKBRIDGE — Never mind the hills shimmering in golds and greens, the bursting peonies, the stretch of sunny days dipping us into Berkshires summer.

They came indoors to see a painting — one set in the cold months — one that brings time to a 1950s halt to quiet the 21st-century nervous system.

"This helps you slow down a bit," said Barbara Kuhn of Bethlehem, N.Y., a die-hard Norman Rockwell fan, smiling broadly at his 1950 work, "Shuffleton's Barbershop."

Saturday, the painting began its 18-month residence at the Norman Rockwell Museum before entering the permanent collection at the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, which acquired it this year from the Berkshire Museum.

The painting has been central to a firestorm that swept the art world, beginning with the Berkshire Museum's decision last year to sell 40 works from its collection, in a massive fundraising effort that set off a legal war.

But this was neither here nor there to most visitors at Saturday's unveiling of the painting, as part of the exhibit "Keepers of the Flame: Parrish, Wyeth, Rockwell and the Narrative Tradition," which runs until Oct. 28.

Instead, visitors expressed awe at Rockwell's skill, and what emanated from the painting and touched them.

"It's times that have gone by," said Kuhn, whose husband, Doug, once drove to Stockbridge through a blizzard in the 1970s to buy her a Rockwell print for her birthday. "A slower-paced time in life that we used to have."

The viewer looks through a window, complete with a crack and paint chipping on the panes, to a scene of an old-fashioned barbershop, with a potbellied stove in the foreground, hair on the leaning broom. It follows the light to the back room, where men joyfully make music, presumably the barber and his friends.

Rockwell's work with light and shadow has been compared with that of the Dutch Masters, like Rembrandt, who inspired him. In this exhibit, it is surrounded by the work of his teachers, Thomas Fogarty and George Bridgman, as well as the work of N.C. Wyeth and William Bouguereau, among others.

One after another, visitors stood in awe before "Shuffleton's," beholding its details, like smudges on the barber's drawers, the tattered rug, the rifle butt, the fishing tackle, wood grain in the floors.

"The composition also draws you in," said Susan Wilcox, who drove from Malden. "I like the story itself. When they close the barbershop, they become a little quartet."

Wilcox said she is inspired by Rockwell's technique. Asked if she was an artist, she held up her phone to show her own — pencil drawings.

"I'm an artist wannabe," she said. "I was too afraid to go to art school. I thought, `How would I survive? I'm an ESL teacher — that didn't pay much more."

Dean and Andrea Weemes came from Michigan. They were all smiles, too, and said the painting reminded them of a similar little place in the upper part of the Lower Peninsula back home.

"The dusty walls, the scrawny cat," Andrea Weemes said. "I could just look at it for an hour."

Howard Blue, a writer who lives in Copake, N.Y., said he was reminded of going to Queens with his father, who had a business there, and going into shops with the same atmosphere portrayed in the painting. And as a kid growing up on Long Island, Blue was a fan of Rockwell without knowing much about him.

"I loved The Saturday Evening Post," he said. "But I didn't know it was great art."

But for a woman who grew up going to visit the painting in Pittsfield, it was not only great, it made a deep impression on her destiny.

"I'm gonna start crying," Regina Mason said when asked about the painting. "I grew up with it."

Mason, 58, happens to be the daughter of Rockwell's optometrist, whose 19th-century desk Rockwell made studies of, just as Mason made endless studies of the black cat in "Shuffleton's" when she was a youngster.

Mason, a shepherdess and fiber artist, also happens to be one of those who railed against the Berkshire Museum's art sale.

But that's not the point.

"It's one of my favorite paintings, because I wanted to play the fiddle, but my parents made me play the clarinet," said Mason, who is passionate about folk tunes and also plays the banjo.

"I did become a fiddler," she said.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter at @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.

This article was updated to reflect the number of works Berkshire Museum decided last year to sell, 40.


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