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The Springfield Museum of Art offers a look into the life of Norman Rockwell through 100 photos.

As a child growing up in Lee, Massachusetts, Charles Flint couldn’t wait until the next edition of The Saturday Evening Post arrived on his parents’ doorstep. The then-weekly magazine featured illustrations by celebrated artist Norman Rockwell on the cover, and Flint, who loved to draw, would meticulously try his hand at copying each image.

“Rockwell’s work was challenging and beautiful,” he says. “He became my idol.”

Little did Flint know then that one day he’d meet the artist — along with Rockwell’s studio photographer Louis “Louie” J. Lamone — and amass more than 500 photographs that would go on to be showcased at museums across the country.

From Sept. 24 through Dec. 31, the Springfield Museum of Art is presenting “Norman Rockwell: The Man Behind the Canvas,” an exhibition of 100 of the artist’s Saturday Evening Post illustrations complemented by 100 photos of Rockwell taken by Lamone that are part of Flint’s collection.

“The exhibit presents a look at Norman Rockwell that most people have not seen,” says Karen Anne Briggs, executive director of Georgia’s LaGrange Art Museum and curator of the exhibition. “Rockwell’s work is certainly part of the collective American psyche, so most people are familiar with it. Now, those who love his illustrations will be able to learn about Rockwell the man.”

Briggs, who spent countless hours preparing the exhibit before it debuted at the LaGrange Art Museum last year, admits tears sprang to her eyes when she learned about the artist’s kindheartedness and good nature.

“Through letters and thank-you notes, I discovered he was extraordinarily dear and gentle,” the curator says. “I feel I’ve really gotten to know him and, as a result, have a true and tender spot in my heart for him.”

Flint, 70, echoes that sentiment. In 1953, Rockwell and his family moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, which borders Flint’s hometown of Lee. As a youngster, he would often see the artist bicycling through the quiet streets.

“There were so many times I wanted to meet him, but I was too shy,” Flint recalls. “When I was 17, I finally got up the courage to look his name up in the phone book and call him. I was thinking about going to art school and wanted his advice. Norman invited me to his studio, where we talked for about half an hour. He told me to put together a portfolio and come back. A month later, I brought him a cross section of my architectural renderings and portraits. He thoughtfully studied each one. Norman was so generous with his time and very respectful. Finally, he looked at me and said, ‘I think you should go to art school.’ I was so touched by that.”

In the end, Flint opted not to. Instead, he became one of New England’s foremost art appraisers, authenticators and dealers, opening a fine art and antiques shop in Lenox, Massachusetts, and serving as a consultant to venues that include the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.

His friendship with Lamone, who died in 2007 at age 89, was forged 45 years ago when the photographer visited Flint’s emporium with a Rockwell painting he wanted to sell. Through the decades, the photographer shared not only his images with Flint but also insight into the artist’s life. Hired by Rockwell to be his part-time studio assistant in 1953, Lamone was initially charged with documenting paintings before they were given to clients. But that role quickly expanded to include taking pictures of the illustrator at home and at work.

“Norman worked long hours, so he and Louie became compadres,” Flint says. “Their relationship was both serious and funny, which is reflected in the photographs.”

It was a friendship that would continue until Rockwell’s death in 1978 at age 84. Two of Flint’s favorite prints, which will be showcased in the Springfield Museum of Art exhibit, capture the artist’s encounter with a lawn sprinkler in his backyard and a moment of contemplation upon completing portraits featuring 1964 presidential hopefuls Barry Goldwater and Lyndon B. Johnson and their spouses.

“Louie was very, very proud of his photographs. He had a great eye and loved his Leica camera,” Flint says. “Since he was never with Norman without his camera, he snapped away all the time.”

Humor and humility were essential aspects of Rockwell’s work, as reflected in the lighthearted approach he took when creating his “Triple Self-Portrait,” featured on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post on Feb. 13, 1960. In it, the artist is depicted in the mirror as the 66-year-old he was and on canvas in the youthful persona he wanted to be.

“What you don’t see in Louie’s preliminary photo is the brass bucket that was always located at the foot of the easel,” Flint says. “Norman used cloth diapers to clean his brushes and would drop the used ones into the bucket. When he was working, he’d often forget the bucket was filled with cloth, and he would tap the ashes from his pipe into it. Louie couldn’t count the number of times he’d have to grab the bucket and take it outside to douse the small fire that occurred when the pipe ashes met the paint rags.”

As Rockwell gained renown, he became friends with a host of Hollywood elite, ranging from Bob Hope to Judy Garland, whose likenesses he would eventually paint. In 1966, Rockwell traveled to California to create a series of portraits for the 20th Century Fox production of “Stagecoach,” starring Ann-Margret, Bing Crosby and Red Buttons. In addition to meeting John Wayne, who starred in the 1939 version of the film, Rockwell was cast in the bit part of poker player Busted Flush. (A Look magazine article described Rockwell’s character as “a mangy old gambler in cowboy costume, with a bad-guy black hat and high-heeled boots that hurt his feet.”)

For more than six decades, beginning in 1912 when he was hired as a staff artist for Boys’ Life magazine, Rockwell was also a staunch supporter of the Boy Scouts of America, creating images for guidebooks and promotional materials. “Can’t Wait,” which was used for a 1972 calendar illustration, depicts a Cub Scout trying on a very large Boy Scout uniform, eagerly anticipating the day he would wear it.

“Norman Rockwell is everybody’s fantasy grandfather who depicts a fantasy life we all wish we could live,” Flint says. “He’ll never be outdated. People 400 years from now will look at his paintings and relate to them in the same way we do.”

Springfield Museum of Art
107 Cliff Park Rd., Springfield 45504
937/325-4673, springfieldart.net
Hours: Wed.–Sat. 9 a.m.–5 p.m., Sun. 12:30–4:30 p.m.
Admission: Adults $5, students with ID and seniors over 65 $3

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