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Stockbridge In Time

A journey into history with Rockwell and French

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Wednesday, August 28, 2013
Pete Redington photo
The massive door to Daniel Chester French's studio

If you’ve seen Norman Rockwell’s famous 1967 painting “Main Street, Stockbridge at Christmas,” then you know what Stockbridge looks like. The quintessential village remains virtually identical to Rockwell’s famous rendering even half a century later. Main Street is bookended by the brick post office to the left and the historic Red Lion Inn (established in 1773) on the right, both of which remain as if they were posing for the paintbrush of the town’s famous former resident.

Likewise the storefronts depicted in the painting still stand along the town’s main drag, separated by several alleyways, including the one down which Alice’s Restaurant, the inspiration behind Arlo Guthrie’s counterculture anthem, was found in 1967.

Like many visitors to Stockbridge, I’m heading through the small, picturesque downtown on my way to two of the Berkshires’ more notable attractions: the Norman Rockwell Museum, and Chesterwood, the former house and studio of famed sculptor Daniel Chester French. But because the town is so rich with history, I’m hoping to find much more.

The town’s population (a mere 2,000 or so year-round inhabitants) has barely increased since 1850, the year the U.S. Census Bureau first began keeping track.

That was the summer Nathaniel Hawthorne rented a cabin in the woods on the outskirts of town to write Tanglewood Tales, the book for which the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s renowned summer home in Stockbridge is named. It was also the year that saw the birth of America’s most famous sculptor, Daniel Chester French.

A native of Exeter, N.H., French moved around quite a bit throughout his childhood. He lived in Amherst for two years while his father served as the first president of the Massachusetts Agricultural College (today’s University of Massachusetts), then moved east to Concord. There he befriended local sculpting student May Alcott, younger sister of Little Women author Louisa May Alcott.

It was, one would imagine, a good time to live in Concord, as French regularly rubbed elbows with not only the Alcott family, but Ralph Waldo Emerson as well. Visitors to Chesterwood can see several busts sculpted by French, including renderings of both Bronson Alcott and Emerson.

Through his connection with Emerson, French acquired his first major commission, the Minuteman statue, at age 23. The work was unveiled on April 19, 1875, in honor of the centennial celebration of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, and the beginning of the American Revolution. Today the statue still stands on the banks of the Concord River, emblazoned with Emerson’s most memorable verse (“By the rude bridge that arched the flood / Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled / Here once the embattled farmer stood / And fired the shot heard round the world”), which the scribe wrote for the occasion.

From that auspicious beginning, French would go on to become America’s preeminent sculptor, embedding his art across the American landscape. To this day, you can see his work on buildings and monuments everywhere from Harvard Yard in Cambridge to DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C. to Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Many of his most famous works, like the Abraham Lincoln in Washington D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial, were sculpted at his Chesterwood studio just outside Stockbridge.

Though the drive from downtown Stockbridge to Chesterwood is not long, it is complicated, with some half a dozen or so signs signaling turns from one road to another dissecting a mere three and a half miles. Passing the Norman Rockwell Museum on the left, I make my way along Willow Street beyond the paved portion of the road, continuing up the unpaved dirt to the Chesterwood estate.

Despite its Berkshire location, Chesterwood exhibits a distinctly Italian feel. French was enamored with Italian sculptors, and had his studio, home, and property designed with their garden estates in mind. To this day, visitors heading up the elongated driveway first pass the barn (now the main Visitor’s Center) on the right, then circle around to the palatial stucco studio before finally arriving at the family’s house, just as they would have in French’s day.

This summer the studio building will be closed, as the passage of time dictates that renovations must be done. But visitors will still be able to see many of French’s most famous sculptures in the other buildings on the property and admire the studio’s famous railroad track by walking around the periphery of the building.

Despite designing and working in his dream studio—one of the first if not the very first in the country to employ railroad tracks and a large lazy Susan to more easily move heavy sculpted objects from inside to outside and back again— French frequently used the high-ceilinged space to host parties with friends Edith Wharton and Henry James, as well as informal dance performances by his daughter, Margaret, who lived at Chesterwood until she passed away in 1973.

The sole inheritor of the property, Margaret French, donated Chesterwood to the National Trust for Historic Preservation (the organization that continues to own and operate it today) in 1968, with a provision stating she could live there for the remainder of her life. A year later, in 1969, the Norman Rockwell Museum was founded, at the Old Corner House on Main Street in Stockbridge. And about 20 years after that, the museum was moved to the land once owned by Rockwell’s friends the Musgrave family, where it stands today, a mile or so down the road from Chesterwood.

“During his daily bicycle rides to this site from his home in Stockbridge Center,” a plaque outside Linwood House on the museum’s property informs us, “Norman Rockwell became acquainted with the Musgrave family. He enjoyed the property’s beautiful vistas, but had no idea that it would one day provide the backdrop for a museum established in his honor.”

The Rockwell Museum contains an enormous amount of the artist’s work. One single room in the basement, containing three full walls with row after row of every magazine cover the artist ever did for The Saturday Evening Post over the course of four decades, will easily make an hour seem the blink of an eye. But look closer and you’ll notice the covers are still stamped with what appear to be the original address stickers of several of the Post’s subscribers, with street addresses long ago held by dedicated readers from Ohio, West Virginia, and elsewhere.

An upstairs room holds Rockwell’s old bicycle, which has been mounted to the wall, fixed in place next to a photo of the artist riding it down the road and a picture he painted of himself and a couple of friends heading back along Main Street into town, possibly from one of his excursions to the Musgrave family’s property.

In Stockbridge, art may imitate life and life may imitate art, but either way, it’s easy to lose one’s perspective on time, and space, past, present and future.

Passing Rockwell’s studio, perched on the hillside next to the museum and above the meandering Housatonic River, I get into my car for the drive back through downtown, past the Red Lion Inn, the post office and the alleyway of the original Alice’s Restaurant, and to the turnpike running from Stockbridge toward Boston. It’s been a too-quick though timeless trip. But it’s good to know that Main Street, Stockbridge will be waiting when I next get the chance to return.•

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