An Erratic Journal: A Continuing Education

Whose education? Well, mine. Which begins in the Norman Rockwell Museum, and ends with a vital awareness you probably knew all along — but I had to come to it slowly, slowly, like this —-

The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge is one of the places we most enjoy bringing visitors.

Lots of people dismiss him as just an ILLUSTRATOR, or, He’s so SENTIMENTAL, or He’s okay, but his stuff is, you know, kind of TRIVIAL. Actually seeing the paintings in the flesh comes as quite a surprise.

Norman Rockwell is a superb painter. You can only really appreciate this when you see his actual paintings, not those small, flat reproductions on Saturday Evening Post covers. The real things are large, sometimes huge, oil-on-canvas works. They echo Dutch and Flemish masters, their smooth surfaces and meticulous detail reflecting reality, but with a monumental and serene quality that reality rarely possesses.


Think of Frans Hals’ Laughing Cavalier, or the card sharps and con men of Georges de la Tour (so he wasn’t Dutch!). For that matter, think of Rembrandt’s Susanna and the Elders, and the Prodigal Son. All these artists told stories: from the Bible, myth and legend, history.  Or stories from real life: The Anatomy Class of Dr. Tulp, and The Night Watch.

But they aren’t accused of being JUST illustrators, or sentimental, or trivial. Why is Rockwell?

Well, I think it’s because the story Rockwell is telling is the story of our national myth, the myth of America in the first three-quarters of the 20th century. It’s long been a fashionable intellectual stance to belittle or attack the American myth. Why? Because it isn’t the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

Myths aren’t true in the “real” world. Myths are true to something else, to the beliefs and ideals and aspirations held by a group, whether they’re Mayans, or ancient Greeks, or latter-day Americans.


To be reminded once again of those dreams, however far short we’ve fallen — Perhaps that’s why Americans flock by the thousands to the little white building nestled in the rolling Berkshire hills. To be reminded —

But I’m getting carried away from telling you about the lesson I first began to learn at the Rockwell Museum. It’s a lesson about PROCESS.

Trailing after the docents, I would hear about the long research, detailed sketches, many photographs and studies, the hours, days and months that went into the painting of each one of Rockwell’s paintings. And at last the penny dropped: I’d been assuming he’d just thought up an idea, channeled it through his right arm, and voila! A Rockwell painting.


Wrong! It was WORK. He tried this, tried that, kept this, discarded that, kept building, altering, trial and error.  Rockwell, that enormously skillful painter, had to WORK for each painting. I was amazed.

But it was still just a startling fact until we went to a Thomas Eakins show at the Metropolitan Museum.  Another realist, another masterful, effortless painter, right? Again, wrong! First was the room full of mathematical angles painstakingly calculated for his masterpiece, Sculling on the Schuylkill. Next were the myriad photographs, sketches and studies he’d done for even his smaller paintings, evidence of hours and days and weeks of trial and error. Oh! He had to WORK at it.


Maybe a little.

We live around the corner from Tanglewood. Often we would go to Saturday morning open rehearsals for Sunday’s concert because, however many weekend visitors we had, we could always steal away on a Saturday morning for a couple of hours, and it was interesting to see a rehearsal, contrasted with a finished performance.

There they were, these accomplished musicians of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, wearing jeans or shorts and tee shirts. A famous soloist in an open-neck polo shirt, a big-name conductor in chinos. It made a difference, somehow. Suddenly the musicians were — people.

The transition caused by Seiji Ozawa’s departure had been difficult for the BSO. (This was before the advent of James Levine, which has caused its own difficulties.) Every week they faced a different conductor. Some allowed the orchestra its head and rarely stopped the music. Others stopped often. No, not this. That. A few conductors stopped repeatedly, forcefully. No, no. Not this. That. AGAIN. AGAIN.


I think that’s when I really did begin to get it.

My own unexamined idea (you know, the one so firmly embedded that it’s invisible and therefore never challenged) was exposed in plain view. The very stuff of which a work of art, any work of art, is composed— the sketches, the studies, the trials, the errors—I’ve always labeled them MISTAKES. Wrong. Bad. You’re not supposed to make mistakes, you’re supposed to get it right the first time.

It took my breath away, to see my mistaken view about mistakes! I’m still living with the fallout from that. It’s a new freedom, but even freedom requires trial and error.

So I don’t know what it will mean for my creative life. That’s still in process. And that’s okay. Hey, I may be a REALLY slow learner, but eventually I get there. I just have to WORK at it.

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