I first saw him standing beside the pool at a hotel in Lake Atitlán, Guatemala. Wavy grey hair, a slender, erect posture and his trademark cravat were unmistakable. It was Norman Rockwell. The year was 1972 and I was on my honeymoon while he and his wife Molly were vacationing. My husband and I greeted him with trepidation, marveling later at his cordiality.
That evening, we had drinks with the most famous illustrator of his time and his wife. The next day, Molly told me they were leaving their holiday early because Rockwell couldn’t stand being away from his studio for long. That explained, in part, how the artist I had loved as a child for his Saturday Evening Post magazine covers could be so prolific.
The current exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, “Keepers of the Flame: Parrish, Wyeth, Rockwell and the Narrative Tradition,” explains a great deal more about the beloved illustrator and the forces that influenced him, as well as Maxfield Parrish and N.C. Wyeth.
The three 20th century painters, showcased together in this comprehensive exhibition, produced copious works for newspapers, magazines and books, delighting a growing audience of readers and visual art patrons. Each produced illustrations that were linked to and inspired by historic Western art. More than 60 works by 25 American and European painters, and over 300 digital representations from 50 other artists, reveal the relationship of the three American master illustrators to the artists who inspired them.
“Telling stories in pictures — whether the vehicle is an altarpiece, a ceiling fresco, a canvas or an illustrated book — transcends the limits of written and spoken word and is the most powerful way to express and comment on our shared experiences and multifaceted lives. The artists represented in this exhibition told their stories with clarity and an expertise that had been nurtured and maintained through the centuries by the artist/teachers, the keepers of the flame,” curator Dennis Nolan said.
The exhibition begins with the work of Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966) and includes his intriguing and beautifully rendered “Lantern Bearers” (1908), an imagined scene in which costumed figures seem to be playing with large, gold-lit balls. Another gallery showcases work by N.C. Wyeth, noted patriarch of the Wyeth artists. In “In the Crystal Depths” (1906), he depicts a Native American, canoeing between two massive cliffs while contemplating his reflection in the crystal-clear water. Capturing nature as awe-inspiring, Wyeth drew from the tradition of German symbolism and 19th century American landscape painting.