Reflecting Rockwell: Berkshire Museum paintings depict artist's local lifestyle
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PITTSFIELD — For Norman Rockwell, his move from New York to Vermont in 1939 was a welcome pivot to full-time country life.
There he embraced new pastimes and a slower pace, both of which are clearly represented in two of his works, "Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop" and "Shuffleton's Barbershop."
Rockwell had "unique, personal connections" to those works, according to Stephanie Plunkett, deputy director and chief curator of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.
Those paintings are among 40 artworks slated to be sold at auction by the Berkshire Museum. The proceeds are part of the museum leadership's plan to stabilize its finances and reimagine the 114-year-old space for 21st-century visitors.
Each of the 40 works, primarily paintings by American and European artists from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, have their own story.
And Rockwell's connection to the region — he lived and worked in Stockbridge for 25 years until his death in 1978 — and his artwork have a particular significance here in the Berkshires.
Rockwell created work for The Saturday Evening Post, and Life magazine among other publications, over the course of his more than 60-year career.
"Though his art was not widely appreciated by art critics during his lifetime," Plunkett said, "he had millions of followers who anxiously awaited his imagery on the covers and pages of widely circulated American magazines for more than six decades."
That appeal meant his work was highly sought after by publishers. And by the time he created "Blacksmith Shop," in 1940, and "Shuffleton's," in 1950, he had two years of assignments lined up, Plunkett said.
His work is "among the most widely recognizable in the United States," she said.
A turning point
Both works, while fictionalized, were based on slices of the life he experienced in Arlington, Vt., where he lived prior to moving to Stockbridge in 1953.
"I think they are each just beautiful examples of his mature period," Plunkett said.
Rockwell created "Blacksmith Shop" to accompany the fictional short story, written by Edward W. O'Brien, published by The Post in November 1940.
It tells the tale of an intense horseshoe forging competition between a local man and an outsider.
"It's a contest between giants," reads the subheadline of the story, a copy of which was obtained by The Eagle through Rockwell's archives. "All day long the hammers ring and sparks fly until one man proves that losing isn't always what it seems."
The surrounding crowd, most of whom are rapt on the competition unfolding before them, includes Rockwell. His cheerful gaze is turned outward toward prospective viewers.
Rockwell's appearance in the painting was both practical and personal.
He was a ready model and could be quickly inserted into a work, Plunkett said. "And he put himself in because he was part of the community and he liked to represent himself that way."
That painting's activity falls in stark contrast to the calm displayed in "Shuffleton's," which art and literary critic John Updike called "an amazing painting."
In it, Rockwell captured a moment in time at his own local barbershop.
The work depicts a chilly evening; boots surround the dimmed shop's glowing stove while three men play classical instruments in a lit rear room. All of it is glimpsed by the viewer through a gently cracked window.
Even though many of Rockwell's works were fictional, "Shuffleton's," which appeared on on The Post's cover April 29, 1950, was closer to reality.
Rob Shuffleton, the shop's owner, is pictured as a fiddler. And Rockwell's son Peter told the Norman Rockwell Museum he loved going there to read comic books, also displayed in the work.
A gift of thanks
Rockwell donated both paintings to the Berkshire Museum — "Shuffleton's" in 1959 and "Blacksmith Shop" in 1966, according to Lesley Ann Beck, senior communications manager for the Berkshire Museum.
They were gifts of appreciation.
Plunkett said Rockwell's first studio in the Berkshires, above a storefront, was small and lacked storage. Rockwell had a strong working relationship and friendship with then Berkshire Museum Director Stuart Henry, who allowed the painter to store many of his works at the museum.
"I send to you the thanks of all of our trustees for your generous gift of the painting, "Shuffleton's Barber Shop," reads a Sept. 23, 1958, thank-you letter from Henry to Rockwell. "We are delighted to have it for our permanent collection."
(The Eagle obtained the letter through the Norman Rockwell Museum archives.)
Last on view
"Shuffleton's" and "Blacksmith Shop" were last displayed at the Berkshire Museum from January 2013 to October 2015 as part of the exhibit "Objectify: A Glimpse Into the Permanent Collection." And prior to that, both paintings were loaned to the Norman Rockwell Museum and Bennington Museum several times in recent years, according to a timeline provided by the Berkshire Museum.
It's possible the paintings have been seen by the public for the last time.
The Berkshire Museum said it has no plans to display the Rockwells, or the 38 other artworks, prior to the auction. And, citing security reasons, museum leadership has declined to say where the artwork is currently.
Berkshire Museum's plans
The museum has a $60 million plan it said is designed to secure its future, which includes a $40 million endowment and a $20 million renovation, most of which will come from the estimated auction proceeds — $50 million.
The plan has drawn support as well as opposition from residents, artists, educators as well as community leaders.
And some have even asked the museum to "pause" the sale.
The first to do so was Laurie Norton Moffatt, director of the Norman Rockwell Museum. She is among those who has said she will help to find another solution to sustain the Berkshire Museum.
Reach staff writer Carrie Saldo at 413-496-6221 or @carriesaldo.
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