Writing in National Review Brian T. Allen introduces Americans to the small-town Vermont painting legend Norman Rockwell. Debbie and I spent nearly three decades criss crossing small town Vermont, including Stockbridge and Arlington, on our Harleys. Nobody has ever captured the character of Vermont, it’s culture and it’s people like Rockwell.
Mr. Allen tells NR readers:
For the past few months, the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., has been traveling the Four Freedoms paintings by Norman Rockwell (1894–1978), which the museum owns. Rockwell finished them in 1943. They were quickly published in The Saturday Evening Post and became famous. The show, Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt, and the Four Freedoms, opens this week at the Museum of Fine Arts in Caen in Normandy as part of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion on June 6. Also 75 years ago, in wartime America, these paintings traveled to department stores throughout the country as the calling card for the federal government’s most lucrative war-bond drive ever. It raised $133 million, equal to about $2 billion today.
The four paintings were done exclusively for publication in The Post, which commissioned the project by Rockwell, who worked as the magazine’s top illustrator. They appeared in the publication, America’s preeminent news and lifestyle periodical, over four weeks in 1943. The Post then had a circulation of about 3 million. Millions bought a special reprint of the series. The Office of War Information (OWI) distributed about 8 million posters advertising the government’s 1943 Series E war bonds.
Rockwell is a realist in the tradition of the great 19th-century American realists like George Caleb Bingham, Francis Edmonds, William Sidney Mount, and Eastman Johnson. The real fantasists are the academics and highbrow critics who claim that Rockwell’s world didn’t exist. Rockwell depicted the everyday life of what was then called “the common man,” whom Rockwell found in Arlington, Vt.
Overwhelmingly, Arlington was working-class, white, and native-born. Of its 1,418 people, 29 percent lived on a farm. Arlington had one densely populated neighborhood — East Arlington — but was otherwise rural. East Arlington contained a one-road business district of grocery stores, a barber shop, a hardware store, and Hale Furniture Company, a manufacturer of home and office furniture with about 300 non-union employees, and considerable low-density factory housing. There were no African Americans or Asian Americans in Arlington. About 8 percent were foreign-born.
Arlington is in the geographic center of Bennington County. In 1940, half of Bennington County’s rural, non-farm population had some high school education. Only 15 percent were high school graduates. About 5 percent were college graduates. Of non-farm working men, 11 percent were professionals, business owners, or managers. Thirty percent were laborers and factory workers. About 11 percent of working-age men were unemployed in 1940, though this had surely changed by 1943 given a new state of full, wartime employment. The balance were craftsmen, foremen, service workers, clerks, and sales people. Of non-farm females over 21, about a third were employed.
Rockwell came to Arlington to withdraw from the city life, and in his autobiography, he was direct in describing Vermont’s attraction. “The people we met were rugged and self-contained . . . none of that sham ‘I am soooo GLAD to know you’ accompanied by radiant smiles,” he said. “They shook my hand, said, ‘how do,’ and waited to see how I’d turn out.” Vermonters were “not hostile but reserved with a dignity and personal integrity which is rare in suburbia, where you’re familiar with someone before you know him.”
“It was like living in another world . . . a more honest one somehow,” Rockwell wrote. “Because almost everyone had lived in the town all his life and had known one another since childhood and even everybody’s parents and grandparents, there could be little pretension.” Rockwell understood that since so many people in town were farmers, there was less of a spirit of competition. “The pressures were very strong, not toward conformity, but toward decency and honesty. . . . A mean-tempered man would soon find soon felt isolated since his neighbors wouldn’t be bothered with him.”
Brian T. Allen is an art historian. Read more here.