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Ralph Gardner Jr: The Norman Rockwell Museum

photo of the Norman Rockwell painting, "Triple Self-Portrait"
Ralph Gardner, Jr.

You may be familiar with the Danish word, spelled h-y-g-g-e, and pronounced “hoo-guh.” It was among the finalists for the Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 Word of the Year. My wife, who spent her junior year abroad in Denmark, has been using it for years.

The subject of recent articles in both the New York Times and The New Yorker, there’s no exact translation. But it refers to an experience of superior coziness, contentment and well-being.

And the concept seems more enticing than ever these days as many of us seek a respite from the news.

I’m struck by hygge at least once a day at our home in Columbia County. A roaring fire and an acceptable single malt scotch serve as excellent catalysts to help spark the sensation.

But it need not be limited to indoors. A walk in the woods in a light snow can trigger it just as easily. Or wending your way through the aisles of your friendly local farmer’s market.

An artist whose work brings to mind “hygge” is Norman Rockwell. For example,  the painting “The Runaway,” where a crewcut very young vagabond with dreams of adventure sits alongside a sympathetic state trooper at a local diner. We can be confident that after treating him to breakfast, the officer will make sure the boy gets home safely.

Not that Rockwell shies away from challenging subject matter. His 1964 cover for Look magazine, “The Problem We All Live With,” addresses racism as powerfully as any work of art I’ve seen.

It depicts six-year-old Ruby Bridges, an African-American girl, being escorted by four U.S. marshals to her first day at an all-white school in New Orleans. 

Last weekend, my wife and I finally got to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. after promising ourselves to visit for years.

It rates high on the “hygge” scale.

Not just the art. But the museum itself. Designed by renowned architect Robert A.M. Stern, it’s located on a 36-acre site overlooking the Housatonic Valley.

Even the half hour trip to get there from our house was hygge. And yes, snow started to fall as we crossed from New York into Massachusetts.

Visiting a good museum is a treat under any circumstances. But there’s something exhilerating about one off a country road.

We expect great cities to have them – the Met in New York, the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid. To find a stronghold of culture in the middle of nature feels a special gift.

Nonetheless, there are probably those who still think of Rockwell, who lived the final 25 years of his life in Stockbridge, as primarily an illustrator for magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post.

But I believe he can also claim to be a great artist.

Perhaps the picture of a Rembrandt self-portrait he has taped to his easel for inspiration – it’s in the 1959 self-portrait the Saturday Evening Post asked him to do to accompany the first of eight excerpts of his autobiography – is meant as a joke, as gently self-mocking humor.

And I’m not going to argue that Rockwell approaches Rembrandt, whose self-portraits are among the most moving ever painted. But there’s something about the quality of Rockwell’s work that the artist, who grew up in New York City, shares with great painters throughout the ages.

It has the ring of truth, achieved through the masterful control of light, color, composition and perhaps most of all an understanding of human nature.

There are many virtuoso examples in the museum. But none more so than “The Gossips,” a 1948 Saturday Evening Post cover. It depicts fifteen separate subjects, Rockwell among them, spreading and reacting to an apparently salacious rumor.

I may have been overcome by “hygge” at that instant, but Rockwell’s work brought to mind the luminous quality of Vermeer.

For example, “Home for Christmas.” It’s a painting of Stockbridge’s main street, decorated for the holidays.

I doubt it was the intention of the docent who started her afternoon tour of the museum in front of that work. But as she pointed out Rockwell’s second story studio from 1953 to 1957 – where a Christmas tree glows in its oversized window – I wanted to contribute to the local economy by having lunch in Stockbridge.

Maybe even at the Red Lion Inn, depicted on the right hand side of the painting.

And my wife and I did just that. She had the pea soup, me the New England clam chowder washed down with an excellent draft beer.

Things don’t get much more “hygge” than that.

Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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