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Wednesday, May 24, 2006


On the old Third Age Traveler website, I wrote about the Corcoran Gallery and its Banjo exhibit. One of the paintings on display was by Norman Rockwell, depicting an African-American man playing the banjo to the utter delight of a young white boy using sticks to beat an accompanying rhythm on the floor. It was an interesting painting disturbingly interpreted as racist by the exhibition’s curators, and it piqued our interest in Rockwell’s view of Americana. So here in the Berkshires, Rob and I were going to check it out ourselves.

Rockwell’s history hardly reveals racist tendencies. In fact, he left a position with a major magazine because it only allowed African-Americans depicted in servile positions. Rockwell’s strong civil rights drawings showed an opposite view. Seeing some of these famous illustrations in the exhibit reminded me of their strength when I first saw them many years ago.

Additionally, a recurring motif in Rockwell’s work is the older person sitting in a superior position to a younger person and instructing him in some way. Generally, Rockwell portrayed adults in relationships of instruction or closeness with younger people to demonstrate the importance of intergenerational relationships. This is the way we saw the illustration—the older man entertaining and teaching, much to the delight of the youngster who could not resist joining in the music. It was positive, not negative.

The curator of the museum concurred and showed us numerous examples of Rockwell’s social comments—all positive!

Our docent was a woman whose son had posed for Rockwell. She regaled us with anecdotes and insights we never would have heard elsewhere. Rockwell was a real citizen, using the townspeople as sitting models until he finally switched to photographs. She identified many of the people he depicted in his illustrations, and she knew them well. How often can one be treated to this kind of experience?

If the Rockwell exhibits had been the singular focus of the museum, that would have been enough, but there also was a National Geographic exhibit—illustrations detailing the process by which National Geographic retains illustrators as well as its intricate process of meticulously checking for accuracy before an illustration, whether a soon-to-be-unearthed ancient city or a possible new solar system in space, appears in its publication. Absolutely fascinating.

We lingered so long at these two exhibits, we didn’t have time to see the third exhibit—of another illustrator. We left with added knowledge and a tremendous appreciation and respect for Norman Rockwell and his fellow illustrators. This is a museum to which we will return.
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