Wednesday, March 9, 2011


The Mark Twain House & Museum is thrilled to present American Storytellers: Norman Rockwell & Mark Twain, an expansive exhibition that features Norman Rockwell’s Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA.  The exhibition, opening March 11th and running through September 6th, also features dozens of Rockwell prints, original oils, sketches and illustrations from the collections of MassMutual Financial Group, The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Hannibal, MO and the New Britain Museum of American Art.  MTH&M Director of Communications Jacques Lamarre reflects on how Twain and Rockwell loom large on the American conscience.

In 2003, we opened our new Mark Twain Museum Center.  One of the great assets of the new facility is the ability for us to showcase some of the thousands of items we have in our collection.  Most people are not aware of the treasure trove of books, letters, artifacts, furniture, art, and more that the museum has amassed over its 80+ years.  The building also affords us the opportunity to exhibit other work that can help us better tell the story of Twain.

Under two hours away in Stockbridge, MA, there is another museum that is also dedicated to highlighting the work, the life and the legacy of an American icon:  Norman Rockwell.  Although Rockwell was born in 1894 (during Twain’s lifetime) and grew up in New York City (where Twain spent many of his later years), the two men never met.  Rockwell’s first works as a professional illustrator were not published until 1912, two years after Twain’s death.  As such, they were of two different eras.  So why are Rockwell and Twain twinned in many ways 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.  Rockwell illustrated the cover of Boy’s Life, the magazine of the Boy Scouts of America, for several yearsTwain’s books feature adventure, over-active imaginations and afternoons spent playing hooky with friends.  Rockwell’s illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post and his advertisements for the Mass Mutual Life Insurance show the enthusiastic energy of childhood and the importance of family.   Both Rockwell and Twain’s work are suffused with humor and contain many touching moments. 

Rockwell’s art and Twain’s words were and 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 via magazine covers.  Twain’s books were sold door-to-door by subscription.  Unlike the works of “great geniuses,” Twain and Rockwell’s work were readily available in everyone’s home. 

Although Rockwell worked in paint, he was not referred to as a painter the way a Da Vinci or a Rembrandt would be; he was labeled “an illustrator” (a term he embraced).  Twain, similarly, was seen less as a novelist and and is more frequently labeled “a humorist.”  It is easy to forget how both Twain and Rockwell could be provocative with their work.  Some critics have dismissed their work as lightweight, blithely ignoring the important statements they made on race (Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Rockwell’s Civil Rights-era The Problem We All Live With) and society (Twain’s writings on Imperialism and Rockwell’s iconic The Four Freedoms).

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 and Twain’s Autobiography has been firmly lodged on the New York Times Bestseller list since its release.  A critical reassessment of their oeuvres has forced scholars to rethink the weight of these two masters.    When it comes right down to it, it is no surprise 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.  We are delighted to celebrate the impact of these two icons that have become inextricably linked. 

American Storytellers: Norman Rockwell & Mark Twain has been made possible by:
The City of Hartford Arts & Heritage Jobs Grant Program, Pedro Segarra, Mayor
The Edward C. and Ann T. Roberts Foundation
The Saunders Foundation
United Technologies
The George A. & Grace L. Long Foundation, Bank of America & Alan S. Parker, Co-Trustees
The Greater Hartford Arts Council
The Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism

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