Separated by only 70 miles, there are two museums dedicated to the life, legacy and homes of two American icons: The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts and The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut. Twain and Rockwell have been paired in many ways and identified as the creators of an idealized sense of American childhood. Although Rockwell was born in 1894, when Twain was at the height of his fame, and raised in New York City, where Twain spent many of his final of years, the two men never met. Essentially Twain and Rockwell were of two different centuries and two different generations. Why then are Rockwell and Twain intertwined in the public consciousness?
With books like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi, Twain explored many of the seemingly carefree idylls of the typical American boy's life. At the beginning of his career, Rockwell illustrated the cover of Boy's Life, the magazine of the Boy Scouts of America. Twain's books feature adventure, overactive imaginations and afternoons spent playing hooky with friends. Rockwell's illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post and his advertisements for clients such as Mass Mutual Life Insurance show the energy, rebelliousness and delights of childhood alongside the importance of family. Both Rockwell and Twain's work are suffused with humor and contain many touching, easily identifiable moments. Stories of spirited childhood have been called "Twainian," while images of a family seated together at the dinner table are labeled "Rockwellian." Both epitomize nostalgic Americana.
Rockwell's art and Twain's prose are, in essence, for the masses. Twain stated, "My books are water: those of the great geniuses are wine. Everybody drinks water." (Mark Twain's Notebook) This somewhat self-deprecating remark could easily apply to Rockwell's art, which was widely available on newsstands and in magazines. Twain's books were sold door-to-door by subscription. Unlike the works of "great geniuses," Twain and Rockwell's creations were readily available in everyone's home. Eventually Walt Disney would seize upon Rockwell and Twain's visions for childhood and reinforce them in the public's subconscious via film, television and theme parks. Disney created Tom Sawyer Island and the Mark Twain Riverboat for his amusement parks. Rockwell befriended Disney and sketched the media mogul's daughters.
Although Rockwell worked in paint, he is not typically referred to as a painter the way a great master would be. He was labeled "an illustrator," a term he embraced, probably because his work was often for-hire and commercial in nature. Twain, similarly, was seen less as a novelist and more frequently labeled as "a humorist." Twain intended his work to reach the widest possible audience.
As a result, it is easy to forget how both Twain and Rockwell could be provocative or daring, depicting the gravity of issues involving subjects like race, gender and class with penetrating clarity and seriousness. Some critics have dismissed their work as lightweight or as responsible for over-mythologizing a white paradigm of American childhood, but this ignores the power of Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Rockwell's Civil Rights-era The Problem We All Live With or Twain's trenchant writings on American Imperialism and Rockwell's iconic representation of basic human rights in The Four Freedoms. Certainly Twain seemed to probe darker corners of the American psyche with his many vicious attacks on hypocrisy while Rockwell embraced the war-time patriotic and ideological fervor typical of someone who lived through the two World Wars.
Both Rockwell and Twain have had the last laugh. They are arguably more popular than ever: recent Rockwell exhibitions have smashed attendance records at museums across the country. Twain's Autobiography has been firmly lodged on The New York Times Bestseller list since its release and a recent controversy about a censored version of Huckleberry Finn dominated the news at the beginning of 2011.
It is really not surprising that we often think of Rockwell and Twain together. Rockwell was commissioned to create illustrations for the 1936 Heritage Press edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the 1940 Heritage Press edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Rockwell traveled to Hannibal to create his sketches, immersing himself in Twain's world. The artist stated, "These were classics. I read through the books, making notes of which scenes would make good pictures. Of course certain scenes -- for instance, Tom whitewashing his Aunt Polly's fence -- were required." He went on to describe the world of Twain's novels as, "complete and perfect to the last detail." We would guess that Twain would express the same sentiments toward Rockwell's work.
The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford is delighted to celebrate the impact of these two icons that have become inextricably linked. Working in conjunction with the Norman Rockwell Museum, our curators have assembled an expansive exhibition chronicling the literal and thematic links of these two American icons. The exhibition features images that Rockwell created for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, as well as original illustrations from the collections of The Mark Twain Boyhood Home in Hannibal, MO and the New Britain Museum of American Art. We invite visitors to immerse themselves in the nostalgia of American childhood created by these two giants.
Jacques Lamarre is the Director of Communications for The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, CT. He is a playwright and has written for Hartford Magazine, Northend Agents and Connecticut Theatre Magazine.