By Stephen Haggerty
Pawling’s location between New York City and the countryside of New England gives us unlimited choices when it comes to selecting a day trip. But if you enjoy a scenic ride through the countryside and would like to view Americana at its best, the Norman Rockwell Museum might be just your place. Only one and one-half hours away in the Berkshires by car, its gallery exhibits the largest collection of the artist’s renowned images.
Should you go, America’s most popular artist would hope you’d be charmed and inspired by the precious expressions he painted of everyday people faces. Some Rockwell themes can be serious, but he was renowned for his comedic picture stories. His paintings are popular, in part, because he was one of the few master craftsmen of his day who did not migrate to modern art.
Go with a Friend
While having a cup of coffee in Pawling Village with friends, I was scolding myself for waiting until the last minute to invite someone to ride along with me to the museum. “Why not ask these guys?” Though I thought my chances slim, I threw out the question.
“I’ll go with you,” exclaimed Chris Mattioli. He explained that he is a painting and carpentry contractor who works the region from Pawling to Stockbridge. He is also someone who likes to hike and fish along the same route.
Off we went the next Sunday morning. “Should we take Route 22 most of the way and cut over to Route 90 near Stockbridge?” I asked. Route 22 is an easy ride north past rustic farmhouses and old barns and cornfields.
Chris insisted we start on Route 22 to Wingdale, but work our way onto Route 41 through rural Connecticut. We absorbed lovely views of manicured country estates and the quaint historic villages of Sharon and Salisbury, CT. Chris pointed out homes he had worked on, lakes he had fished, and hills he had hiked.
We then made our way through Sheffield, MA, where the landscape changes to casual meadows mowed by livestock rather than machines. Chris pointed out the hills and valleys of a huge sheep farm. We switched over to Route 23 in Egremont for a spell, and found Route 41 again to take to West Stockbridge.
Though cars had nearly filled the museum parking lot by the time we got there, we found a spot with little problem. Chris chatted with the folks who stepped out next to us. In good spirits, too, they looked forward to the paintings of “the man who defined America.”
Inside, we found a buzzing crowd of people, pointing. “That’s my favorite,” or “I know that one.” Somewhere around 130,000 folks visit the museum annually.
I took over as tour guide to Chris as the creations on the gallery walls captivated us. I know many of the people in the artist’s paintings well because I once lived in West Arlington, VT, where Rockwell lived from 1939 to 1953 and painted many of my friends.
On display through October, the current exhibition is called “Inventing America: Rockwell and Warhol.” Andy Warhol was the “pop artist” who combined art and advertising and created famous works like Thirty Two Campbell Soup Cans.
A Lifetime of Images
During his career, Norman Rockwell lived in three separate venues. His New Rochelle-era Saturday Evening Post covers are characterized by people he depicted on the white background of the popular Post cover. During his Vermont years, he painted incredible detail in the space behind his models. In Stockbridge, he created more portraits, but also continued putting the priceless everyday expressions on faces.
A huge poster of a Post cover called The Critic hangs in the lobby. Through a magnifying glass, a young man stares at the woman portrayed, who appears surprised. We lingered at such paintings as Freedom of Speech: a Lincolnesque man, modeled by the former gas station owner in our town, Carl Hess, stands and speaks at a town meeting in West Arlington.
Rockwell’s spell had begun working on us. The paintings drew us in to feel the inspired illuminations of human nature,
In Christmas Homecoming, enthusiastic family and friends from West Arlington greet a young man who has returned home for the holidays. Norman, his second wife, Mary, and their three sons all modeled for that one. Mary is the woman hugging her son, Jarvis.
I felt the urge, as we stopped by Girl at the Mirror, to explain to Chris that the model is our former family lawyer’s daughter, a girl named Mary Whalen. She sits before a mirror, hands clasped at her chin, wondering if she is beautiful. Norman’s son Jarvis Rockwell gave this one his highest praise. “It is the sum of all my father did right,” he once told me.
Our West Arlington neighbor, Rockwell’s assistant Gene Pelham, shows up in a number of paintings, such as The First Sign of Spring. Cheered by a crocus that has just pierced the earth, he points down at it. Rockwell was brilliant at finding his models. In real life, Pelham’s daughter Ann told me he would announce the arrival of snowdrops when they first appeared by his front door.
My traveling partner, Chris, said his favorite was the The Runaway, the much-loved work that tells the story of a police officer and a vagabond boy chatting at a diner counter. One of my favorites from the Stockbridge years is Marriage License, where a veteran clerk’s expression tells that he might be jaded by romance as a young couple signs their papers.
Downstairs at the museum, we seized the opportunity to view a gallery of walls lined from top to bottom with Rockwell Post covers from New Rochelle, West Arlington, and Stockbridge days.
Out back we strolled over to the artist’s red studio, which has been kept just as he left it. The lawn features sculptures by Rockwell’s youngest son Peter, who has lived most of his adult life in Italy.
A Treasury of Diversions
After the museum tour, Chris and I walked the main street in Stockbridge, a charming rural village with a selection of shops. Rockwell featured it at Christmas in a panoramic painting we saw at the museum. We browsed at the library’s outdoor book sale. At the Stockbridge General store we surveyed displays of gifts, candles, and knickknacks sitting on displays on old plank floors. You can enjoy an ice cream cone there if you like. The second floor boasts the large window of the studio where Rockwell once worked.
For lunch, we selected The Red Lion Inn, popular with visitors from around the world. Guests often have to make room reservations ten months in advance. First a tavern in 1773, the three-story white inn, with half a dozen dormers peeking out from the roof, was rebuilt after it burned in 1897. The porch, perhaps 80 feet long, overlooks Main Street. You can take a seat among the other guests in rockers.
We dined on tasty hamburgers on the outdoor patio to the left of the building, which offers the same fare as inside. The menu also features reasonably priced sandwiches, hot entrees, and drinks. The Lion’s Den Bar, downstairs, offers a cozy atmosphere and entertainment. The main dining room features a sitting area with bright rugs on wood flooring, formal couches and red chairs. The country elegance becomes a tonic. The formal dining room is equally well appointed with round tables covered in red cloths and fine settings.
Chris noted that there are a number of other restaurants nearby worth a recommendation, such as the Main Street Café, which serves hamburgers and sandwiches and The Elm Street Market, a grocery store that serves hot food.
If you want a diversion as you head home for the day, Chris raves about a Mexican restaurant in nearby Great Barrington called Xicohtencatl. He says the chef’s Chicken Pablamo is “to die for.” In the same town, you can climb Monument Mountain in perhaps an hour and a half, Chris says, to enjoy great views.
Less than a half mile from the Red Lion Inn, the Divine Mercy Shrine features religious sculptures, a huge church, and hiking trails.
If you want to extend your stay through the evening, Tanglewood, summer home to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, lies just a few minutes away. The concerts can feature classical, contemporary, or folk music. You can also listen while you enjoy a picnic dinner on the college campus-like lawn. The Berkshire Theatre Group and the Shakespeare & Company are in the neighborhood, as well – all just a little over an hour’s reach from the Village of Pawling.
Stephen Haggerty, a resident of Poughquag, NY, is the author of Cows in the Fog and Other Poems and Stories. He is currently at work on a book about Norman Rockwell.