CONNECTIONS: Purloined paintings, vanishing legacy

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By Tuesday, May 1 Life In the Berkshires  6 Comments
'Shuffleton's Barbershop' by Norman Rockwell. Image courtesy enchantedserenityperiodfilms.blogspot.com

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

Rockwell is leaving the building. As the Berkshire Museum makes a paradigmatic shift in program and policy, two Norman Rockwell paintings will not remain where the artist meant them to be. The museum’s new vision may or may not stand the test of time as well as the paintings have; nonetheless, the works are going, going, gone. As a writer, all I can do is preserve the works in words: short shrift for art.

“The Blacksmith’s Boy – Heel and Toe,” a short story by Edward W. O’Brien, ran in the Saturday Evening Post November 2, 1940  Rockwell’s illustration “Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop” was one of the few published inside the magazine rather than on the cover. The story, told by the blacksmith’s boy, is about a contest. It goes like this.

It is 1907 and an Irish immigrant named Frank Farrell has a busy and prosperous blacksmith shop. A quiet man with a ready smile, a strong arm and matchsticks in the brim of his bowler hat, Frank is beloved in the town. As the story opens, Frank is hard at work preparing winter horse shoes — a process sometimes called “heel and toe.”

Jim McCann is also Irish but the opposite of Farrell in mein and temperament. McCann is loud, brash and boastful. He is a drifter who makes his living travelling from village to village challenging the local farrier. McCann is confident he can turn more heels and add more toe calks to the blanks in 10 hours than Farrell.

The blacksmith accepts the challenge. With one man at each anvil, the contest begins. Sparks fly as they turn the heels by swinging hammers with shoe against anvil in hard, heavy strokes and fire-weld the toe calks. Villagers gather and place wagers, betting on one man or the other. Farrell lays a $100 wager on himself even as McCann pulls into the lead.

‘Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop’ by Norman Rockwell. Image courtesy mutualart.com

Now look at the Rockwell image. Rockwell faithfully illustrates the characters and plot elements. See the disparate personalities of Frank and Jim? See the money in the fists of some onlookers? Look at the son in the corner — alert to every nuance, fiercely loyal to his old man and yet unable to suppress a creeping concern about the outcome.

Rockwell described himself as an illustrator, a man who painted what he saw. Therefore, he worked from real locations and models. In 1940 when Rockwell painted it, the blacksmith’s shop was in what is now the historic district of Shaftsbury, Vermont. It had two anvils, the symbol of a successful shop. He selected his models from among his Vermont neighbors.

When Rockwell moved to Vermont, Jim Edgerton was the boy next door, a frequent model and friend to the Rockwell children. In later life, he was author of a book about Rockwell and a careful student of the Rockwell models.

According to Edgerton, Rockwell painted the Blacksmith’s contest a year after moving to Vermont. The model for Frank Farrell was a man named Walt Squiers. Just as Frank was a favored character of the author’s, Squiers was a favorite model of Rockwell’s. Squiers lived “just a five minute walk down the road from Rockwell and could pop over when needed.” Squiers appears often in Rockwell works. Look for him in two of the Four Freedoms. Edgerton concludes Squiers was the model Rockwell used the second most. Who did Rockwell use the most? Rockwell.

As Edgerton explains, “He was readily available.”

Rockwell is the fellow in the hat on the left side of the painting. He is one of two characters turned toward us.

There is just one other looking away from the contestants. That man is also on the left, with an exceptional mustache and waving money. Now look closely: His image is repeated on the right side of the painting; however, Rockwell removed his mustache, stuffed a cigarette in his mouth and a hat on his head, and took the money out of his fist. That man was Harvey McKay. Rockwell asked him to model because of his great mustache.

The model for Jim McCann was Frank White. Frank was also the model for Willie Gillis, the GI series that appeared on 12 Post covers.

Four Corners in Shaftsbury, Vermont, circa 1900. Photo courtesy Shaftsbury Historical Society

Henry Heff is in the lower right corner; he appeared in two of three April Fools covers for the Saturday Evening Post and also in “Freedom of Speech.” There is Nip Noyse who appears twice in the Shaftsbury Blacksmith shop — look closely and you’ll spot him. The profile in front of Norman is Thaddeus Wheaton, Rockwell’s caretaker and the husband of the Rockwell cook. There is Emmet Smith, the Arlington, Vermont, town clerk, and other Vermonters, long dead and memorialized forever as the onlookers of the blacksmiths’ contest. Rockwell may have painted what he saw, but he saw more than most of us.

Edgerton concludes, “I think the painting is just genius in terms of telling the story of this blacksmith’s boy.”

Nonetheless, Edgerton has to admit, “I’m no critic but I hear every one of them agrees Shuffleton’s Barbershop (Saturday Evening Post cover April 29, 1950) is a bit of a masterpiece.”

Located in East Arlington, Vermont, the barbershop was on the second floor inside an IGA grocery store. When Edgerton was four years old, he got his first haircut there.

Just as Rockwell imbued his models with our ethos and emotions, he adjusted locations to fit the storyline. The barber chair and elements in front of it are exactly as Edgerton remembers them; however, the position of the shop is not. If you looked through the actual window in the real barber shop, you would not see out-of-doors but down into the grocery store.

Long after the barbershop closed, the store manager climbed the stairs and took up a post in the former barbershop to watch for shoplifters. He caught his man: The fellow had slipped a pound of bacon into a folded Bennington Banner and was walking out. The manager ran down stairs, tapped his shoulders, relieved him of the bacon and told him “don’t come anymore.”

The story of Shuffleton’s — if “story” is the right word — is about old timers getting together after work to play. The models for the men playing their instruments in the back of the shop are Rob Ronbert, the actual Shuffleton barber, with fiddle and Herb Saunders with clarinet. Edgerton is working on identifying the others. Notwithstanding the critics, which of two works does Edgerton like best?

“I kinda favor the story of the blacksmiths. This one [Shuffleton’s Barbershop] is a little too sophisticated but people who know favor it highly.” He considers: “You know what it is? Rockwell fans like the stories.”

Those amateur musicians in “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” and the fierce competitors in “Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop” hung in the Berkshire Museum since 1959 and 1966 respectively. The old men playing their instruments and the young men swinging their hammers hang there no more.


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6 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Fleming Rutledge says:

    The debate about Rockwell’s status–was he an illustrator, or was he a true artist?–will always be with us. From my point of view at any rate, the one painting of Rockwell’s that crosses over from illustration to art is “Shuffleton’s Barbershop.” It is therefore all the more heartbreaking to see it leave the Berkshires so unceremoniously and for such dubious reasons.

  2. Robert B. Wyatt says:

    Mr. Rockwell’s work seems to get better with every passing year as interesting, original art and twentieth century documentation. One wonders how the folks of the Berkshire Museum can sleep at night after they have disposed of immutable treasure in exchange for mutable detritus. We must be grateful to Carole Owens for her colorful, needed essay.

  3. Sharon Gregory says:

    Thank you, Carole Owens, for your historical background and deep insights. So many of us are inconsolably sad at the loss of the art as well as the historical and cultural significance they represent.

  4. Susan P. Bachelder says:

    When you look at the Worcester and Met’s adaptations to new technology in historical context, what the Board of the Berkshire thinks is going to carry its story into the 21st century is naive and frankly, lazy on their part. Plastic ages very quickly these days. By the time they get it installed it will be outdated. They should have just had Carole reading her story into some new earbuds and watch the faces of everyone listening in front of these masterpieces light up with delight. That would have been some smart use of technology. And an evening with Carole finishing the story would help? Who won? Waiting for Part II……..

  5. Carl Stewart says:

    It would be interesting to know which “mutable detritus” the Berkshire Museum acquired in exchange for the Rockwell illustration(s) they have deaccessioned. Is Mr. Wyatt able to name 3 such objects?

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