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Stockbridge at Christmas; a wintry walk along the streets of the New England town made famous by the illustrator Norman Rockwell.


The flock of summer visitors--migratory artists, dancers, and writers and their satellite watchers, listeners, and admirers of art--have long since departed this old-fashioned New England village, and once again its streets and time-proven structures belong to the natives--and, at the moment, to you and me.

Thanks to the magic of the paintings that sprang to life under the brush of Norman Rockwell, we are privileged to take a Christmas Eve walk through the streets of the famous illustrator's hometown, Stockbridge, Massachusetts. With any luck we may spot (under stocking caps and protective scarves if the wind is blowing snow off the roof of the Berkshire Hills) the immortalized faces to be found among some 4,000 paintings that compose his lifetime portfolio.

Slip on your coat and earmuffs, turn up your collar, and come along. Down the recently shoveled sidewalk of Main Street we plod past the public library, the 7-Arts Gift Shop, the supermarket behind its Greek Revival facade, then the barbershop, the Image Gallery, the town bank, and on to the rambling Red Lion Inn.

Built in 1773 by the marvelously named Silas Pepoon, the lordly inn served as a stop for stagecoaches traveling between Albany, Hartford, and Boston. It can boast of at least five U.S. presidents as guests, and it has been hallowed even more by the resounding snores of Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Cullen Bryant, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

From the gaily decorated inn we turn down a side street, where in the hush of falling snow "peace on earth" suddenly becomes even more a reality. The windows are lit, Christmas trees shimmer with baubles, stockings have been hung by the chimney with care, and visions of the happy households awaiting the big day come easily.

The house over there, the one behind the high hedge of balsam and the picket fence? Once owned by Aaron Burr, that is the house Norman Rockwell bought from the Burr estate for $20,000. It has been moved from Main Street. (Moving houses at that time was quite the thing.) The house was "what they call a foursquare house," Rockwell would explain, "the four rooms on the main floor being of equal size." Tourists being what they were, and are, there was no mailbox or other evidence to identify its owner. Still, it often suffered strange surprises, such as the admiring fan who climbed through a bedroom window for an autograph.

Rockwell's last studio was in the carriage house, now moved to the 40-acre grounds of the new museum. His original studio in Stockbridge was above Central Market; we passed it back there on Main Street. You might have noticed the picture window he had installed directly above the market door; the window enabled him to look down upon the people entering the market. Spotting a possible candidate, he would rush down and invite the person to come up and sit as a model. Whatever picture graced his easel, "I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed," he once said.

Where are those immortalized models now? Who knows but what we might, as we head for the celebrated Old Corner House, spot one or two on the way. Over there, that could be Joan Mahoney, who posed with her fiance for The Marriage License--Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post cover for June 11, 1955. The woman trudging behind her could easily be Anne Braman, who sat (or stood, rather) for Teacher's Birthday, another Post cover. (Rockwell didn't like her shoes, so he had her wear his wife's shoes, although they were three sizes too big.) And that man hurrying past certainly looks like Marty Salvadore, whose face appeared in a painting promoting the Peace Corps.

Along the now drifted sidewalks we tramp around to the famous Old Corner House, corner of Main and Elm. This beautiful 18th-century Georgian house has been the home of the Norman Rockwell Museum since its inception in the 1960s. It was restored to its former beauty with the help of--who else?--Norman and Molly Rockwell.

Beautiful as the house may be, a future visit to Stockbridge may well find it used only for museum offices, archives, and special events and hospitality. None other than President Reagan is the honorary chairman of a campaign to raise $5 million for new quarters. A local drive has succeeded in getting the fund off the ground with a hefty $1 million of that 5. The new property and the finished museum promise to be ideal for the Norman Rockwell paintings and archives. The one-story building, centering about an atrium, will have all the modern facilities, such as climate control, security systems, and adequate space for the paintings' storage as well as their exhibition.

In the meantime, the Old Corner House remains the cornerstone of Stockbridge; it holds the only significant collection of Rockwell art in existence.

Besides paintings, if we could enter here (for three dollars), we would find sketches and drawings as well. We could spend the night looking at Saturday Evening Post covers, story illustrations, early drawings for Saint Nicholas, portraits, and advertising work.

Although space will allow but 50 to 60 paintings to be hung at one time, they are rotated once a month by using others from the inventory of 400 to 500. Some paintings, such as Four Freedoms and Stockbridge at Christmas, remain on permanent exhibit. It's an arrangement that has already pleased the museum's one-millionth visitor.

Housed here are two groups of works: Mr. Rockwell's personal collection and paintings acquired by the museum through gifts, purchases, and bequests.
COPYRIGHT 1986 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Stoddard, Maynard Good
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Dec 1, 1986
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