Norman Rockwell at Home in Vermont: The Arlington Years, 1939-53


This is the story of Norman Rockwell's dynamic years (1939-1953) in the Vermont village where he painted some of his greatest works, including “The Four Freedoms” and “Saying Grace.” Inspired by the “everyday life of my neighbors,” the artist created storytelling pictures that have touched the hearts of millions around the world. The book includes recollections by neighbors and models about Rockwell and his family and the community they shared, thirteen Rockwell paintings and sketches, 33 historic photographs, ...

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This is the story of Norman Rockwell's dynamic years (1939-1953) in the Vermont village where he painted some of his greatest works, including “The Four Freedoms” and “Saying Grace.” Inspired by the “everyday life of my neighbors,” the artist created storytelling pictures that have touched the hearts of millions around the world. The book includes recollections by neighbors and models about Rockwell and his family and the community they shared, thirteen Rockwell paintings and sketches, 33 historic photographs, several never before published, a regional map, a listing of area museums, and selected bibliography for further exploration.

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Editorial Reviews

Vermont Life Magazine
...this book and the illustrations and photographs it contains offer an affectionate portrayal of Rockwell's years in Vermont that will delight and entertain anyone interested in this most American of America's illustrators.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781884592027
  • Publisher: Images From The Past, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 1/1/1997
  • Pages: 96
  • Product dimensions: 6.80 (w) x 9.80 (h) x 0.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Stuart Murray has written twelve works of fiction and ten of nonfiction. Murray's nonfiction 'America's Song,' the story of 'Yankee Doodle,' was in Booklist's top ten books on music for 1999 and was awarded third place in the history category as ForeWord Magazine's Book of the Year for 1999. 'Rudyard Kipling in Vermont' was selected a national finalist in Independent Publisher's biography category in 1997. Having served as fiction editor for a leading book producer, Murray has worked on more than twenty historical novels, and with a number of best-selling authors.

A journalist, editor, and writer for more than twenty-five years, Murray loves with his family in New York's Hudson River Valley.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A Visit
in Autumn

Late one afternoon in the Fall of 1938, Norman and Mary Rockwell sat together on a bench in Arlington, Vermont, watching the people pass by on Main Street.

    Norman puffed a briar pipe as his artist's eye saw the autumn colors of the wooded hillsides and how the Gothic spires of St. James Episcopal Church were etched against the twilight sky. This was the first time the Rockwells had visited Arlington, a rural community in the Green Mountains of southwestern Vermont. They had driven up from their home in the suburbs of New York City to look for an old farmhouse as a summer getaway.

    It had been a long day, spent with real estate salespeople in Bennington and Dorset, but the Rockwells had not found a place to buy. Disappointed, they intended to go home next morning after staying overnight at the Colonial Inn, an imposing 1848 Greek Revival mansion with a row of square columns across the front. Before having supper at the inn, the Rockwells decided to go for a stroll along Main Street.

    Born and raised in New York City, Norman was in his mid-forties, prosperous and famous as one of the country's best illustrators. Mary was in her early thirties, a California native with Vermonters as ancestors. The Rockwells' three young sons had been left at home in New Rochelle while the parents went farm-hunting.

    Arm-in-arm, Norman and Mary walked by the Italianate-style Canfield house, a handsome brick building far different from the simple white clapboard 1859 Town Hall next door. Alittlefarther on, they passed St. Columban's Roman Catholic Church, built in 1876 and designed with a steep roof, board-and-batten siding and little ornamentation.

    Nearby, Norman bought pipe tobacco at George Howard's General Store before they made their way leisurely back to the inn. He and Mary were tired, and the peacefulness of Arlington was welcome.

    When "Happy" Bottom, owner of the inn, suggested they look at some farms the next day, the Rockwells decided to stay a little longer in Vermont. Norman had heard about the Arlington area from real estate man Burt Immen and from fishermen friends, who had praised the Battenkill River, a trout stream that wound down from the Green Mountains, flowing westward through the Taconic Range.

    A rugged region bordering New York State, this part of western Bennington County was patched with farm fields and pastures, hills heavily forested. The Arlington community, with about twelve hundred residents, was composed of three clusters of homes and businesses — the central Village of Arlington; the Village of East Arlington, a mile away over railroad tracks; and sparsely settled West Arlington, across the Battenkill.

    The names of many Arlington families were prominent on local 19th-century maps. Some were among the first settlers, who arrived shortly after King George III granted Arlington's charter in 1761. Also living here were a number of professional artists and writers, musicians and poets, several of whom were very well known, though none as well known as Norman Rockwell.

By 1938, Rockwell's illustrations — on calendars, in books and magazines, tacked up on bedroom walls, often framed — were a familiar presence in the American home and had been for a long time.

    During his twenty-six years as a professional illustrator, Rockwell had painted almost two hundred covers for the weekly Saturday Evening Post, the most popular publication in the country. Since his first paying work in 1912, his illustrations for stories and advertisements had appeared in every leading periodical: Boys' Life, Literary Digest, Ladies' Home Journal and American magazine.

    No one could tell a story with an illustration better than Norman Rockwell, best known for his pictures depicting humorous scenes from everyday American life. He had more commissions than he could easily handle and was always confronted with looming deadlines. For all his success, however, Rockwell was unhappy these days, worried about the originality of his work and about his ability to stay much longer at the top of his profession.

    Troubled by more than just the uncertain course of his career, Rockwell was also weary of the fast pace of metropolitan New York, where he had spent most of his life. He needed a drastic change of scene, and both he and Mary wanted to spend summers in the country with their boys.

    At the same time, Rockwell believed his work would be reinvigorated if he stayed a few months each year in rural surroundings without being distracted by the constant social demands of wealthy New Rochelle.

There was privacy and seclusion to be had in Arlington, yet a busy illustrator could get to clients in New York within a day.

    Situated fourteen miles north of Bennington, a college town, Arlington was a station stop on the Rutland Railroad and was served by good highways. Eight miles to the north was Manchester, and an hour's drive to the west were Troy and Albany, N.Y. Brattleboro, a busy Connecticut River town, lay an hour eastward through the Green Mountains.

    Arlington was a thriving collection of small mills and factories surrounded by dairy farms. Fishermen, tourists and seasonal residents swelled the summer population and stimulated the cash economy, but Arlington was little changed by the coming and going of outsiders.

    In the eighteenth century, when Vermont was a frontier claimed both by New York and New Hampshire, Arlington settlers had stubbornly clung to their land. During Revolutionary War times, Arlington was home to brothers Ethan and Ira Allen, leaders of the "Green Mountain Boys," militiamen who defended their homes and rights against all comers. The Green Mountain Boys were as quick to oppose a New York sheriff's deputies as invading British soldiers.

    In those days, there was little regard in Arlington for the Continental Congress, which at first refused to recognize Vermont as a state. For eight years after the Revolutionary War ended, Vermonters conducted their affairs as an independent republic.

    During the Revolution, Arlington farmer Thomas Chittenden was elected Vermont's first governor. Chittenden made Arlington his seat of government and the state's de facto first capital.

The day after strolling Arlington's Main Street, Norman and Mary Rockwell went with Burt Immen and his wife Dot to look at a sixty-acre West Arlington farm on River Road.

    The Rockwells were immediately charmed by the beauty of the setting in the long valley of the Battenkill, leading westward to New York State. The plain farmhouse, painted white, had been built in the 1860s. It overlooked the Battenkill and had two red barns and an apple orchard.

    An avid student of American history, Norman took interest in stories the Immens told him about this setting. As he stood in front of the house, gazing at the shimmering river, Norman saw an island where the only local killing had occurred during the Revolution. A lad had been stealing the cattle of the doctor who owned this land, intending to supply the Green Mountain Boys. The doctor had shot him, then discovered, to his horror, that the fellow was his former apprentice.

    The next day, the Rockwells bought the farm, and went home to New Rochelle, delighted to have found a family "hideout" for the summers. They arranged for local builder Walt Squires to turn the smaller of the two barns into a studio. Even when Norman Rockwell was on vacation, he had to be at his easel, often eight hours a day, seven days a week.

The Rockwell family first came to stay at the West Arlington farm in the summer of 1939. The boys — Jarvis ("Jerry"), eleven; Tommy, nine; and Peter, six — were seldom away from the Battenkill, where they loved to swim and fish.

    As September approached, Norman and Mary were so content in Arlington that they decided to stay year-round. The Rockwells settled in permanently that fall, though the house had no central heating and they had never experienced a Vermont winter. They made plans for modernizing the house the following spring, and in the meantime heated the place with wood stoves.

    Though he had been in New Rochelle for more than twenty years, Rockwell wrote, "I was never really happy there. But the hard-dirt farmers in Vermont — when I got with them it was like coming home."

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Table of Contents

Preface VIII
Regional Map X
1 A Visit in Autumn 1
2 America's Illustrator 14
3 "Like Living in Another World" 21
4 The Four Freedoms 40
5 A New Start 51
6 After Vermont 76
For Further Exploration 78
Acknowledgments 79
Sources of Illustrations 81
Index 83
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