A Visit to Norman Rockwell's 'Best Studio Yet'

The last studio of iconic American illustrator, Norman Rockwell, opened afresh this week at its western Massachusetts home in a bend of the Housatonic River near Stockbridge. 

You may wish to take the three-hour drive from Boston's Logan Airport, straight out west along the Massachusetts Turnpike, to visit the lovely museum dedicated to the golden age of American illustration. But if you can not, let me take you on a diversion there now:

  • Hear what the locals had to say via news footage of the studio's move
  • See the stills used to recreate the studio
  • Enjoy an innovative 360° video tour from the chief curator
  • And the drawings I completed on a visit there ... once I realized that no photos were allowed

First, the Move

In 1986 Rockwell's studio was sliced in two, put on two flatbed trucks, and carefully moved through the streets of Stockbridge from behind the artist's last residence to the grounds of the then-being-built Norman Rockwell Museum.

It was such an exciting event in Stockbridge that the children got a day off from school.
— Stephanie Plunkett, Chief Curator

Recreating a Day in the Life of the Artist

Norman-Rockwell-Steps-Studio

Thanks to a rich documentation of stills taken one October 1960 day, it is known exactly how Rockwell's studio looked.

Curators have recreated the look and feel of the place dating from that day, during a period when the artist's interest in social justice issues awakened.

You can see a selection of studio stills at the link below, and then a video of the installation process.

Visit Via Sketches

Visiting the museum and studio for our wedding anniversary almost eight years ago, I was just beginning my journey into the land of sketchbooking, and had a rich and wonderful time documenting the whole trip.

It took some courage to duck back in to the Studio building through the back door and start drawing, once I realized that photos weren't allowed. But of course, now I'm thrilled that I took it on, however hasty the outcome. I always keep a glue stick in my travel sketch kit and love to include all sorts of scavenged finds, whether from brochures or purchases from a museum store, usually added later over coffee or in the evening.

Purchased postcards can quickly fill your sketchbook with color and a fresh view. Watercolor by local artist Gina Hagan, my notes added around the edge.

Finally, an Innovative 360° Video Tour

Led by Stephanie Plunkett, Chief Curator, step into the studio and enjoy her tour. At any time you can drag the image to reveal a complete 360° view as she narrates.

It Wasn't Always So Ideal

Rockwell went through twenty previous studios in various locations until arriving at the 'best yet', now preserved in this museum perfection. Lest you think this man had unmitigated success and ease, one of those twenty burned to the ground along with all his stored artwork inside.

In May 1943, Rockwell went to bed in his remote Arlington, Vermont home, leaving his pipe on the window seat of the nearby studio building. By 1 a.m. a fire was raging,  consuming all his carefully collected costumes, favorite paintings, brushes, art books. The phone line had burned through and Rockwell had to drive a mile to the nearest neighbor to alert the fire chief.

The studio was a total loss and the family immediately decided to move and start afresh. This time to a place with less distant neighbors.

Here he portrays that exciting night for publication in the Saturday Evening Post, in comedic cartoon-style drama despite the devastating loss.

When I ducked back in to the studio to draw, I didn't know what or how to capture it all, a dilemma I still face every time I say 'yes' to the blank page. I loved visiting Rockwell's studio. But it was this back story that I find most inspiring.

The fact that Rockwell said 'yes' to the blank page and kept on going and rebuilt after such loss.

if you want to visit in person

Norman Rockwell Museum—The Home for American Illustration

I highly recommend the lovely Chambéry Inn, a former 19th-century parochial school in the nearby town of Lee, Massachusetts. Among other delights, the 13-ft ceilinged rooms contain the original vast school slate boards on guestroom walls. The Inn is a 14-minute drive from the Museum.

Stopping in Lee, Massachusetts recently, as we passed through on a longer trip and were looking for a bite of something other than highway food, my daughters and I stumbled on Joe's Diner. With dawning realization we saw that we were in the setting for Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post cover, The Runaway, in which a boy is seated on a diner stool next to a burly but kind policeman.  

If you really want to travel back to the Norman Rockwell era, other than a worthwhile visit to his studio, you will find a good deal to chew on at humble Joe's Diner.