Thomas P. F. Hoving (1931-2009)
Today the brilliant, charming, flamboyant former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Hoving, is remembered in New York City at his memorial service in the Temple of Dendur, not only for his theatrical antics but for profoundly and forever changing the way museums engage with objects and audiences through the blockbuster exhibition.
Much is known about Tom Hoving’s provocative and energetic years at the Met, his outreach to underserved New York neighborhoods and his arm chair thriller reads Making the Mummies Dance and King of the Confessors which regale us with his art pursuits as a young cheeky curator who went on to head the nation’s most prestigious art museum.
Much less is known about his ties to the village of Stockbridge, Massachusetts and his equally profound influence on Norman Rockwell Museum.
Tom Hoving spent his childhood and college years’ summers with his family in Stockbridge on Prospect Hill. On a heartachingly beautiful day in June last summer, Tom flew his plane into Great Barrington Airport to deliver a work of art to me for loan to the Norman Rockwell Museum and over sushi at Bizen told me some tales of his rascally youth.
Sent home from prep school on probation and in need of remedial behavior, Tom liked to sneak out his bedroom window at night and meet up with his school chum, who later became a Norman Rockwell Museum trustee, Chauncey Loomis and gamble the night away at the Stockbridge Casino. While his parents fretted over his daytime exhaustion, the doctor they sent him to winked at him while he pondered what ailed him – he being a co-conspirator of his nighttime escapades at the Stockbridge Casino himself!
Nearly flunking out of Princeton he turned to art history, thinking that was the easy path to survive and graduate college. Much to his surprise and delight he discovered that his great visual acuity skills made him a natural at remembering and understanding the art objects he began to love. He spoke to me of the year he traipsed through Europe with his beloved bride Nancy. Soaking up all the art he could find he returned to the States with the equivalent of a doctoral knowledge of the world’s great art and with his gifted communication skills and showmanship he parlayed his way into the nation’s greatest museum.
Always an iconoclast, Tom was influential to the Norman Rockwell Museum in a number of important ways. One of the early art world appreciators of Norman Rockwell’s extraordinary talents, he wrote an essay for our exhibition catalogue, Pictures for the American People, the national traveling exhibition organized with the High Museum of Art. His essay was one of the opinion makers that opened the eyes of the art critics to Rockwell’s talents and profound national influence.
The day he visited to drop off the beautiful illustration art he owned by Charles Dana Gibson, Pips Breaks the Bank at Monte Carlo, (I think this piece reminded him of his own college days of debauchery,) was the last I was to see Tom. After our lunch, he unwrapped the art work on the wing of his plane, handed it off to me and hopped back into his plane, his cargo pants stuffed with the latest electronic gadgets he loved, his kindle and various other handheld devices, and warmed his engines. As he took off he dipped his plane wing to me as he flew off into the sunset – a perfect last salute to a great and joyous life.
We are forever grateful to you Tom.
Laurie Norton Moffatt
Norman Rockwell Museum
Enjoy Tom’s essay on Norman Rockwell:
NORMAN ROCKWELL THE GREAT ART COMMUNICATOR
Art history can be guilty of typecasting. Once an artist has been categorized, then that impression, no matter how superficial and misleading, is set in concrete, and art historians all too frequently stop looking. Of all the American artists of the twentieth century, few have been more miscast than Norman Rockwell. In most standard textbooks on American art, he’s not even included. He is characterized almost universally as an illustrator, and as such he is largely ignored or reviled or, worse, snickered at. It is high time to look at Rockwell again and to place him in his authentic position in art. For he can be said to have taught many of us that distinguished art could be—and should be an everyday experience.
Rockwell was more a commercial artist than an illustrator. His Saturday Evening Post covers and posters did not depict episodes from stories, but were penetratingly real images that, to him, summed up our country’s history and spirit. These images stand firmly on their own as realistic works of art. We can understand them in a flash.
Rockwell’s images are more universal than most give them credit for. We can date them, but they are not dated. The paintings characterize people living and working at times that can be dated from their clothing and other details, but these characters never look like captives in a some bygone and faded moment. The startling aspect of Rockwell’s best works is that no matter what year he created them, they still possess a compelling fascination.
Art history for snobbish reasons has always been suspicious of artists considered to be popularizers—especially successful artists. Few in American history have been more popular—even loved—than Norman Rockwell. In his heyday lines of people at newsstands would await the next issue of The Saturday Evening Post. His covers were constantly chattered about. Rockwell’s paintings were as appealing to the majority of Americans as the cartoons in the old New Yorker magazine were to sophisticates. His fans hungered to see what he had to say next.
Part of Rockwell’s importance in art is that he was one of the most successful visual mass communicators of the century. His work bridged the gap between high and low art. He savored the flavor of his times and presented it in diverse and dynamic ways— funny, poignant, reflective, haunting, and never hokey, cooked-up, or saccharine. He turned untold legions of Americans into art appreciators, many of whom went on to explore the whole world of art. He enhanced the inherent power of popular visual expression in TV and films.
One reason for Rockwell’s success may be that he was strongly linked to the art form that was sweeping the world in the war years and just afterward. Like a movie director, he blocked out the moves of his “actors” according to a script and then “shot” them for posterity. Of course Rockwell’s American Movies were highly selective. He once told a family in Burlington, Vermont, “This is where I can find America the way I want it.” There are few scenes of degradation or poverty in Rockwell’s epics, but what he offered was genuine as well as unforgettable, and was usually presented with a sly sense of humor.
Unlike other illustrators from the ’30s through the ’60s, Rockwell didn’t sugarcoat. Nor were his creations mired in nostalgia or the mud of the advertising pitch. Although denounced in his lifetime by critics for a subject matter that was invented and all-too-perfect, one can now see that what he chronicled did exist.
His works were—and to a degree still are—so gripping that some have become visual codes for familiar American events. Come Thanksgiving, there’s the famous Rockwell image. With references to American life at home during World War II, there’s often a Rockwell image—whether Rosie the Riveter or a patriotic G. I. Joe—to depict the flavor of the times. His name alone has the power to express some commonly held values. His lasting power was even evoked to clean up O. J. Simpson’s image during his criminal trial, when Simpson’s defense team hung prominently in his house, for the jury to see, a print of The Problem We All Live With, the memorable scene of the little girl being escorted to school at Little Rock.
In the field of portraiture, Rockwell excelled most American artists. The people in his works are, contrary to the stereotyped viewpoint, seldom idealized. His portraits are spare, subdued in color, and gritty as only the naked truth is. One is astonished when one sees photographs of his subjects at how beautifully Rockwell captured not only their likenesses but also their essential auras. Gnarled hands ache with decades of work, and facial lines tell of pain and character. Youth is never prettified, and below the surface of even his most charming children lie the anxieties and fears of the future. Women are not transformed into sirens. Men never display spurious machismo. Some of his portraits are exceptionally fine. His John F. Kennedy is among the best painted of that president, preserving his charisma, his dazzling youth, his romantic essence, and a hint of his jadedness.
In American art, there has rarely been a creator of such influence as Norman Rockwell. These days, now that the obsession for abstraction has cooled, his achievements are being discovered by scholars. Rockwell is more and more identified—correctly—as a cultural phenomenon, one who made a sea change in the perception of art in this nation.
Essay Copyright Norman Rockwell Museum 1999