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How Norman Rockwell's Relationship With Erik Erikson Influenced His Work

Jul 29, 2019

In 1953 American illustrator Norman Rockwell moved from Arlington, Vermont, to the small town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, on the Western edge of the Berkshires. While there, Rockwell developed a relationship with a prominent psychotherapist who came to influence the artist’s work. Their relationship is the subject of a new exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum: “Inspired: Norman Rockwell and Erik Erikson.” 

Norman Rockwell was born in New York City, but his most iconic work depicted life in small towns. Like Stockbridge. He drew inspiration from both from the people living there, and from the New England landscape and architecture. 

In one painting, “Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas,” he depicts the town’s center, lit up with Christmas trees, cars covered in snow, smoke rising from a chimney, with the Berkshire mountains in the background. 

But the reason Rockwell moved to the town wasn’t because of it’s New England charm. He and his wife moved because of an institution that is based there: The Austen Riggs Center. 

“In 1951, his wife Mary began seeking treatment for alcoholism and depression at the Austen Riggs Center, in Stockbridge, MA, which was a small but very significant hospital which was on Main Street in town," said Stephanie Plunkett, the deputy director and chief curator of the Norman Rockwell museum. 

Rockwell himself started treatment at the center shortly after his wife. Plunkett explained, “Obviously Rockwell was extremely concerned about his wife Mary and her well being and the well being of his family, so he was certainly seeking counseling to deal with those challenges, but in addition as a very prominent and very busy working  illustrator the stresses of constant deadlines of always having to come up with new ideas with struggling with his place in the art world."

Rockwell was treated by the renowned German-American psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. Here’s Deborah Solomon, author of “American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell:” “He could hold his own in the tormented artist department with any masters from any time, he really agonized over whether his pictures were good, whether he had done them as well as he could do them, and I think Erikson helped assuage his doubts and make him feel more assured about his canvases. This was a day to day problem with him.”

Rockwell worked closely with Erikson, who was known for coining the term “identity crisis” and for his work on the eight stages of development. Both Rockwell and Erikson were interested in ideas of identity, both individual and that of the entire nation. 

“Both Rockwell and Erikson were observers of human nature, very close observers, and you know they really in their focus came to understand who people were in their core," said Plunkett.

And their similarities went on from there. Rockwell’s work, which depicts everyday life, often deals with ideas of development and growth. And Erikson had once even considered pursuing a career as an artist, a creative side of him that strengthened his relationship with Rockwell:

Here’s Jane Tillman, the Director of the Erikson Institute for Education and Research at the Austen Riggs Center, “What one brings as a therapist is a culmination of life’s experiences, one’s own experiences and skills, and so I imagine that part of what Erikson would have brought to his role as a therapist was curiosity, creativity, an interest in seeing things in new ways.”

The relationship led the artist to begin depicting subjects with more sadness, more emotion.  And occasionally, Erikson’s ideas showed up in Rockwell’s art, such as in the painting “Family Tree.”

It was on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in 1959. Starting at the base of the tree, a pirate and a young woman, then a man in a tri-cornered hat and his wife. As the family tree grows, more faces are added, including an aristocrat and his wife. Erikson’s suggestions changed the look of Rockwell’s painting and its meaning. The artist was pleased. He said, “I think this makes it a lot more interesting.”  

The exhibit, "Inspired: Norman Rockwell and Erik Erikson" is on display at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts through October 27.