By Whitney Wilde
Images Courtesy of Norman Rockwell Museum
First Photo: Norman Rockwell, Going and Coming, 1947. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. ©SEPS: Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN, Second Photo: Photograph by Gene Pelham, c. 1950s. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. ©Norman Rockwell Family Agency. All rights reserved., Third Photo: Norman Rockwell, New Kids in the Neighborhood, 1967. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. ©Norman Rockwell Family Agency. All rights reserved.
Norman Rockwell painted like a dog. Dogs, and Rockwell’s paintings, are all about living in the moment. Rockwell showcased single moments that overflow with hopes, dreams, compassion, desires, and emotions. He got to the heart of the subject and gave people hope during some of America’s toughest times. He pointed out the common threads that, regardless of age, race, politics, etc., make us humans more alike than different.
Norman Rockwell was a painter and illustrator best known for his covers for the Saturday Evening Post that showed America’s ever-evolving society, pop culture, and morality from 1916 to 1963. Fifty-five of these covers featured dogs (only twelve had cats). Rockwell understood the special relationship between humans and dogs, sometimes using dogs to elicit an emotion in his work. “If a picture wasn’t going very well, I’d put a puppy dog in it,” Rockwell joked, “and then I’d put a bandage on its foot.” As with all his work, Rockwell painted from his surroundings, using his own dogs or neighbor’s dogs and posing them for the photos that eventually became paintings. He would get down on all fours to act out the scene he wanted his models to perform—becoming a dog himself.
Throughout his life, Rockwell had a mutt for companionship and inspiration . . . “always a mongrel, you know, never one of the purebred puppies.” During the 1940s, Rockwell’s black-and-white Spaniel mix named Butch can be seen in many paintings. Later, in the 1960s, it was Pitter that kept him company in his Stockbridge studio and whose floppy-eared image found its way into numerous works.
Rockwell was as devoted to his four-legged friends as they were to him. In the early 1930s, Rockwell traveled to Europe, leaving his Collie mix named Raleigh at home. The dog stopped eating, and the vet feared Raleigh would die from grief. On Rockwell’s return, he hand-fed Raleigh every two hours until the pooch regained his health, though his whiskers stayed white. Rockwell promised Raleigh that he would never leave him again, if only his whiskers would return to their original color. Within weeks, Raleigh’s whiskers turned dark—and Rockwell kept his promise to never leave him.
Rockwell’s affinity with dogs was apparent early in his career when he created an alter-ego caricature named Patsy to use as his signature. Patsy was a cute, inquisitive little mutt with a tin can tied to her tail by a string and “Your Faithful Friend” as a signature. Rockwell explained that, like the dog trying to catch the can, he would never catch up with all his work. Patsy was an interesting choice of names; it is Latin for “noble,” but also slang for someone who is easily deceived.
Generations of dogs
Even though Rockwell died in 1978, his impact is still being felt. Not only are his pieces still relevant, they have inspired new generations to create visual icons.
In the late 1940s, George Lucas grew up in Modesto, California, and Steven Spielberg was raised in New Jersey and Arizona. Both were inspired by Norman Rockwell’s way of creating simple iconic images. Spielberg felt that “Rockwell’s images symbolized what America held most dear,” while Lucas believed that “Rockwell recorded our fantasies and ideals and gave us a sense of what was in our heads and hearts.”
Lucas and Spielberg have accumulated the largest private collections of Norman Rockwell’s work. It is probably no coincidence that their own pooches have influenced their work. Lucas named one of his iconic characters after his Malamute, Indiana, and Spielberg’s Cocker Spaniel, Elmer, has had parts in a number of films.
The Norman Rockwell Museum
The museum overlooks the Housatonic River Valley on 36 acres in the rolling Berkshire Hills of Stockbridge, MA. The specially designed gallery has the largest collection of Rockwell’s original works—998 paintings and drawings—plus an archive of over 100,000 items, including photographs used to create the paintings. Rockwell’s last workspace, his Stockbridge studio, was moved to the museum’s property and remains as it was when he worked in it.
Norman Rockwell Museum
9 Route 184
Stockbridge, MA 01262
Museum: open daily
Charge: $16 adults
Rockwell’s Stockbridge studio: open May through November
Please note: Your pooch is welcome to accompany you for a hike on the many trails around the grounds but is not allowed in the museum.