A Summer Day in the Berkshires

The Norman Rockwell Museum and the Berkshire Botanical Gardens in Stockbridge

9 AUGUST 2017,
Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Sitting Bull, 1986. Screen print on paper. Rhode Island School of Design Museum Collection. ©The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Sitting Bull, 1986. Screen print on paper. Rhode Island School of Design Museum Collection. ©The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

On a beautiful summer day I headed along with my husband and son to the Berkshires, known for its inherent natural beauty and its abundant art culture. The drive is about two hours from our home and a pretty one most notably along stretch route 183 through the picturesque town of New Marlborough, Massachusetts. Our goal for the day was the Norman Rockwell Museum and the Berkshire Botanical Gardens in Stockbridge. The town of Stockbridge may conjure up visions of New England even if you have never visited, as you might think of Arlo Guthrie's song “Alice's Restaurant”, or James Taylor’s lyrics “Sweet Baby James.” It’s also close to the summer residence of the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the Tanglewood Music Center in neighboring Lenox. Some vestiges of the Gilded Age, such as Naumkeag, Joseph Choate's remarkable summer residence designed by McKim, Mead & White still remain.

On view at the Norman Rockwell Museum is an exhibition of an unlikely pairing of the works of Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol which runs through October 29, 2017. The combination makes more sense than one might imagine. Both started their careers as illustrators, valued populism and ultimately created some of the most memorable works of Art, helping to shape America’s national identity. This visit provided me with much better perspective on Rockwell’s work. There was a time I might have overlooked Norman Rockwell's work as sappy images of an ordinary family’s domestic life. I wasn’t aware of the editorial constraints early on in his career that limited him to depict minorities only as service industry workers or that he couldn’t show women smoking - only men.

Of the nearly one hundred works of Art in the collection, one was particularly memorable for me: “The Problem We All Live With” commissioned for Look Magazine. The subject of painting, Ruby Bridges, had this to say:

“I was about 18 or 19 years old the first time that I actually saw it. It confirmed what I had been thinking all along - that this was very important and you did this, and it should be talked about… At that point in time that’s what the country was going through, and here was a man who had been doing lots of work- painting family images - and all of the sudden decided this is what I am going to do … it’s wrong and I’m going to do… it’s wrong and I’m going to say that it’s wrong.”

Rockwell was a longtime proponent of equality and tolerance. The impetus for this painting was the story of Ms. Bridges and her historic walk that marked the integration of the William Franz Elementary Public School in New Orleans. In 1954, separate schools for blacks and whites were declared unconstitutional and it took another six years for this historic walk to be actualized. In this painting Rockwell took a stand against bigotry and he did it in an eloquent way. Art has always been and will continue to be a refuge however, I’m concerned about how it is being portrayed today as a pursuit for just the rich. It’s important for the Arts to be supported by both the public and private sector. I think everyone should be given the opportunity to have an education that includes the Arts. The United States has boomed in the Arts and I hope that this trajectory can continue in a way that is inclusive to all it’s diversity. Warhol did just that. He made Art fun, approachable and all inclusive. He sourced from the supermarket and reimagined the ordinary into Art - blurring the boundaries between high and low. In addition to painting and printmaking he whole heartedly pursued film-making, rock management, and publishing - notably his celebrated magazine “Interview.”

A smaller exhibition at the museum, was of the work of talented children’s book illustrator of James Warhola, the nephew of Andy Warhol, which offered a different perspective on Warhol - that of a child visiting his famous uncle in New York. We concluded our visit at Rockwell’s studio - a short and walk from the museum building with views of the soft rolling mountains of the Berkshires.

This day celebrated my twentieth wedding anniversary and was the original motivation for this trip. Fittingly, we enjoyed a glass of champagne while dining al fresco in the courtyard of the Red Lion Inn. Following, a sumptuous dessert we took delight in exploring the vast and resplendent Berkshire Botanical Gardens established in 1934. They consist of fifteen acres and are some of the oldest gardens in the country. The Berkshire Botanical Gardens are not only beautiful and peaceful, but they also serve the community to provide a wealth of information and education in garden artistry and science. On view now is “PlayDate! - Playhouses in the Garden” through September 24, 2017. It includes a total of eleven structures - all varying in design and materials. Though the designs mostly had children in mind and were fun for all, there was one that was more suitable for adults with its racy name - “Lady Chatterley,” by Robin Berthet, and interior design by Carey Herrington Home and Design. The structure was inspired by a 19th century-style shepherd’s hut and made from local wood. The sofa was super comfy and it was hard to pull myself up and out. Yet, the gardens beckoned us to continue through the meandering paths and to enjoy what was in bloom. The children’s garden was particularly endearing. At the end of our tour we took delight in seeing some young farm animals which are a part of the Farm in the Garden Camp.

The Berkshires are testimony to culture and refinement that continue to thrive in the States. I’m already contemplating my next Berkshire outing: a visit to Mass MoCa and fine dining in a luxurious setting that recalls the Gilded Age on a crisp autumnal day with the color of the leaves serving as the perfect backdrop.