The Rock and the Rockwells: Two paintings at the center of history and intrigue
Image courtesy of Norman Rockwell Museum asdfasdfasdf
BARRE — Legacy takes different forms. It can be in granite monuments or works of art; woven into the compelling tales of war heroes and immigrants; or simply building an American Dream and fighting for sustainability in a changing world.
Legacy sometimes comes painted in humor, intrigue and pride.
When Rock of Ages commissioned beloved American illustrator Norman Rockwell to paint two scenes to be the centerpieces of its national advertising campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s, the world was a different place. The nation still was healing from a world war, even as patriotism played a leading role in society. Television was relatively new, so the news suddenly had a face to go with it. Manufacturing was seeing the boom of America’s “superpower” status on the world stage. And communities tried hard to cling to simplicity as political storms continued to grow across Asia.
Today, times have changed as well: Information has become instant; business is more cutthroat than ever before; and patriotism and politics often blur together.
But legacies — even the stories behind two Norman Rockwell oil paintings — continue on, hanging like memorials to the tenacity of Vermont’s granite industry and that industry’s impact on the world.
Rockwell’s two Barre-specific works — “Kneeling Girl” (1955) and “The Craftsman” (1962) — were featured in advertisements and promotion materials, overseen by the renowned ad agency Harold Cabot & Co. of Boston. “The Craftsman” also appeared on the cover of Rock of Ages’ annual report for 1963.
“The (first) campaign was very successful,” said Todd Paton, director of the visitor services at Rock of Ages. “Because his work was heartwarming and because he lived in (Arlington) for several years, they decided to ask him to consider creating a painting.
“At a meeting at a restaurant, Rockwell sketched out an image of a young girl kneeling in front of a memorial. The officers here (at Rock of Ages) loved the idea, and Rockwell won the commission,” Paton said. For years, “Kneeling Girl” hung of the lobby of the Rock of Ages visitor’s center. Today it is hanging inside the company’s headquarters at 560 Graniteville Road.
Like many of Rockwell’s images, “Kneeling Girl” became iconic. The image is of a school-age girl, her textbooks tied together, paying her respects at the grave of someone named Newton. There are no known records from the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., which doubles as the archive for the hundreds of thousands of letters and correspondence to and from Rockwell over his long career, that indicate the girl’s identity or back story. In online forums, “The Kneeling Girl” is simply referred to as “another touching moment expertly captured” by Rockwell. Today, the image is resold on eBay and other auction sites as magazine advertising, ranging in price from $3 to $30.
“Kneeling Girl,” which appeared in national magazines including Home & Garden, TV Guide and others, generated so many orders at Rock of Ages’ 700 retail stores nationwide, the company jumped at the opportunity to work with Rockwell again. (Barre’s granite was being shipped to every corner of the United States — and still is, but with far fewer retail stores.)
In newspapers accounts published in 1985 about controversy over the two commissioned paintings, their worth was listed at about $20,000 each. In recent years, however, Rockwell’s works — a catalog spanning more than 4,000 images across all mediums — have been gaining in value at an unprecedented rate, according to Ask Art, a service that tracks art auctions worldwide.
“As an illustrator, Norman Rockwell almost never created works as objects of fine art. His drawings and paintings were created for one of the many magazines or advertising accounts he illustrated for, and as such, had little or no value at the time,” wrote art auctioneer Ingrid Bond. “Collectors now pay well over $800,000 for the privilege of owning an original oil paintings.”
Rock of Ages does not list the Rockwells as assets in its filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. But their worth is believed to be significant.
Comparable Rockwell commissioned works (for Skippy peanut butter, for example) of lesser quality and sizes have sold at auctions recently for up to $700,000. (In 2006, “Breaking Home Ties,” a Rockwell scene depicting a young man preparing to leave home as his father waits with him at the train station, sold for a record-breaking $15.4 million.)
By comparison, a Rockwell autograph or margin sketch usually auctions for between $8,000 and $15,000. His most well-known images from the Saturday Evening Post or Look, as well as other portraits and images usually auction for between $30,000 and millions of dollars. In his lifetime, most of his works were commissions, said Venus Van Ness, archivist at the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. Among notable Rockwell collectors today are filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
Rock of Ages, headquartered in Graniteville, certainly is mindful of the paintings’ values. They are housed away from public view, hanging inside manufacturing building, where the private main offices are located. They are framed and behind glass. The paintings — done in oil — are insured and security is in place to protect them, company officials said.
In 1962, Rock of Ages approached Rockwell for another image.
They wanted something that celebrated the granite industry but also demonstrated their top-selling product: headstones. Ideas went back and forth before the artist and the company’s officers, led by President Robert S. Gillette, agreed to a worker etching a design on a stone inside the manufacturing building.
Rockwell came to Barre from his studio in Stockbridge and was given a tour of the facility, which had expanded in recent years. He met with the company’s officers and took dozens of photographs. An area was set up in which a to-be-determined model could pose. From the group of employees in the room, Rockwell spotted George Seivwright of Montpelier.
Seivwright was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, and immigrated to the United States as a young man. He was a trained stone carver, and brought his unique skills to a quarry in Hardwick. While living there, he met his future wife, Isabella. They began a family together. Seivwright started Eureka Granite Company, which was located on River Street in Montpelier. After several years on his own, Rock of Ages bought the small company, and made Seivwright a senior director.
Tragedy struck the Seivwright family, when their 21-year-old son George was killed during World War II. The Montpelier man was aboard the aircraft carrier USS Franklin, when it was hit by a Japanese kamikaze on Oct. 30, 1944. “When explosions and fires swept the ship due to enemy aerial attack, (Seivwright) voluntarily entered a blazing and smoke-filled compartment with complete disregard for his own safety and rescued three shipmates,” a government write-up on medal honorees states. On his fourth trip into the ship’s inferno, Seivwright was killed.
As a result, after the war, the seaman was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross. His father, the stone cutter, accepted the award from President Harry S Truman.
“Dad (Seivwright) was very proud of George,” said Patricia Seivwright, the elder Seivwright’s daughter-in-law, during an interview last week. “(His son’s service) meant a lot to him.”
Rockwell never knew that story. He said he simply liked Seivwright’s white hair and gentlemanly, soft-spoken look. Purely by chance, he had asked the Scotsman to pose. According to Patricia Seivwright, George donned a fellow employee’s coveralls and posed for Rockwell’s photos. Rockwell described him as “a wonderful model.” It was not until later that friends and colleagues would learn that Seivwright, who always said he was proud to take part in “The Craftsman,” did not want to do anything that might upstage his son’s heroism.
Shortly after the painting debuted in 1962, Seivwright designed his family’s memorial, which is located at Berlin Corners. In granite, the immigrant honored his American roots in simple, elegantly carved dates of birth and death; but George II’s story is immortalized there forever below an etching of the Navy Cross: “He gallantly gave his life for his shipmates and was buried at sea,” it reads in part.
Except for a few news accounts of the painting’s unveiling in August 1962, there is no other mention of Seivwright as the model — not even in versions of his humble obituary. He died in 1966.
To create the painting, Rock of Ages had two gravestone delivered to Rockwell’s studio in Massachusetts. (There was a retailer in nearby Pittsfield.) He referred to the headstones often from his window. (There was a humorous delay in having them removed from his yard because they had frozen into the ground during the long, cold winter.) Also in the painting is an intricately carved angel that appears to be looking down upon the man doing the careful etching.
Describing the challenges of the piece in progress, Rockwell told the company directors that capturing the texture of Barre granite on canvas was more challenging than he had anticipated. “The monument will look more like granite than granite does,” he joked to them.
As a nod to his own mortality (and his well-known sense of humor), Rockwell also sought permission from Rock of Ages to entreat one request, which was granted: The name on the gravestone over the craftsman’s shoulder is Norwell, or (NOR)man Rock(WELL). For that reason, among art followers and even employees at Rock of Ages, the work is more commonly known as “Norwell” — not “The Craftsman.”
Rockwell took two stabs at the painting over those months in 1961-62. The first attempt, which never got beyond what he termed his “underpainting” phase, had a smaller angel statue and different tools on a nearby table. The company also had a few concerns that they wanted addressed to make the image as authentic as possible. To the untrained eye, the unfinished version is nearly identical in composition to the final. The unfinished twin also hangs at Rock of Ages.
Once again, with Rockwell’s assistance, the ad campaign was highly successful. Rock of Ages reinforced its position as the leading seller of headstones and memorials in the nation. After the campaign was through, “The Craftsman” was installed at the Barre building, where it remained until 1977, when it was returned — unexpectedly — to Massachusetts for a few months for repair.
No one knows how the tiny, half-inch tear got there. But “Norwell” had been damaged somehow.
Gillette, the president, called local insurance broker Jim Mulligan of Barre and asked his old friend from Berg, Carmolli and Kent to come see what had occurred.
When Mulligan arrived at the office, he was shown the tear in the body of the painting. An assessment was done, calls were made, and Mulligan made arrangements with the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass., to have the repair work done.
At the museum was Stuart Henry, a longtime art curator and the museum director. Considered to be one of the foremost experts in American art at that time, Henry agreed to do the repair work himself.
On his way to Christmas in Connecticut that December, Mulligan describes how he put the Rockwell, which is about five-and-a-half feet tall and four feet wide, into the back of his Mercury station wagon with his wife, “two kids and I think the dog was there, too.”
He drove for hours through a “white-knuckle” snowstorm, down Route 7, finally arriving late to the museum.
“My wife gave me a half an hour,” he recalled.
When Henry saw “The Craftsman,” Mulligan said the curator was stunned. He had no idea the painting existed, especially one using such an un-Rockwell use of light, and the unique play on his name appearing on the gravestone, Mulligan said. “This was not an easy guy to stun. … He just loved the treating of the light. He went on and on about it standing out (among Rockwell’s works).” The advanced technique, not often seen in Rockwell’s illustrations, is called chiaroscuro, or using light modeling to cast the effect that part of the image is generating light for other, darker parts of the scene.
In his lifetime, scholars now agree, Rockwell was under-appreciated. “The History of Modern Art,” republished now for decades, did not even mention Rockwell among American artists, or recognize any of his influence on the art scene. Rockwell’s genre of illustration was considered “tacky” and “collectible” for most of the years he painted or drew.
“Interestingly, and confusingly enough, Rockwell belongs to the genre of ‘genre’ painting,” Van Ness wrote in an email. When asked to specify his work, she wrote, “You could say he did American genre and had a photo-realistic style.”
But the fact that Rockwell so expertly captured everyday moments in history (as well as more than a few historic events), his works has started to be appreciated and respected in the art community.
Rockwell was quoted in The Times Argus in 1962 stating, “I am the direct opposite of an abstractionist,” going on to describe how every inch of his work has personal attention to detail and realism.
“He was just amazed,” Mulligan recounted recently, describing Henry’s explanation of the uniqueness of “The Craftsman.” Mulligan left the Rockwell at the museum and then picked it up a few weeks later. It had been repaired. The bill: $150.
But Henry had some advice: Get the painting reappraised and make sure it was protected from further damage (and probably add more insurance). In short, Mulligan said, “He told me that we had a treasure.”
Less than a decade later, the Rockwells became the center of a business deal that made national headlines and generated intrigue for the company.
When Kurt Swenson of Concord, N.H., bought Rock of Ages in February 1984 from Nortek Inc. in Cranston, R.I., he had assumed the Rockwells were part of the deal. He had paid $20 million for the entire company.
A short time before the purchase and sale agreement was signed by the two companies in November 1983, the paintings were quietly removed from the Rock of Ages office and transferred to Nortek’s offices in Rhode Island.
Swenson was outraged. He demanded they be returned. In his mind, they were part of the deal.
It took him nearly a year to negotiate to get the paintings back “to their rightful place,” he said at the time. “In particular, the painting of the working craftsman is a very important symbol … (representing) the contributions of all past, present and future employees of … the Barre granite industry. For that reason, our acquisition of Rock of Ages was not complete without these paintings,” Swenson was quoted as telling The Times Argus.
The story appeared in newspapers across the nation because it was picked up by United Press International, Reuters and the Associated Press.
The terms of those negotiations remain secret, but it is known that Swenson (and perhaps some other officers) re-acquired the Rockwells the company had already paid for once. The paintings were returned to Barre more than a year later, in December 1984.
“I was personally irritated enough that I pursued it at great length,” Swenson said at the time.
Today, as Barre goes through its present-day renaissance, and the community takes inventory of the assets and attractions, leaders say they hope Rock of Ages might loan the Rockwells to the Vermont History Center (for now) and the Vermont Granite Museum (as it continues to develop), or allow them to be displayed publicly a part of Barre’s rich history.
As it stands today, other than a handful of granite industry-related employees and clients of Rock of Ages, very few Vermonters knew the Rock of Ages’ Rockwells existed.
Mayor Thomas Lauzon, who grew up in the city, said he was surprised to learn that such works had even been done and were still here. Lauzon, who is known for seizing opportunities to promote the city, maintains the Rockwells would have a draw for tourists, school children and visitors to Barre. He wants to work with Rock of Ages to get them on display in the city — even if just temporarily.
“Rockwell’s art enjoys a broad appeal primarily because his work broadly reflects American culture. His appeal is timeless, as demonstrated by fact that, on February 10 (Rockwell’s birthday), 2010, when the search engine Google featured Rockwell’s iconic image of young love ‘Boy and Girl Gazing at the Moon,’ on its home page, the response was so great the Norman Rockwell Museum’s servers went down under the onslaught of viewers,” Lauzon said.
Ultimately, for Lauzon, it comes down to legacy: Barre’s, the granite company’s and Rockwell’s: “Memorialization is the life blood of our heritage – the granite industry. … Like our heritage, Rockwell’s paintings should be memorialized.”
When talking about the paintings as part of Barre’s overall story, Lauzon summed up: “It’s a story that we need to tell; it’s a story we need to remember.”
For now, however, Barre’s Rockwells will remain at Rock of Ages.MORE IN Central Vermont
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