The wind whipped up Main Street in Stockbridge, Mass., making the rows of wooden rocking chairs lining the Red Lion Inn’s wide veranda sway gently. As I watched them, my imagination conjured another sunny afternoon 124 years earlier when the sculptor Daniel Chester French, of Lincoln Memorial fame, sat on that porch with his wife, Mary, and fell instantly and deeply under Stockbridge’s spell.
“I don’t know what you’re going to do,” Mary told her husband. “But I am going to live here.”
I had only been in Stockbridge for a few hours, but with the Berkshires’ undulating hills rising all around me and the Red Lion Inn’s rocking chairs overlooking the idyllic downtown, I thought I understood why Mary didn’t want to leave this place.
If Stockbridge’s quaint, tree-lined Main Street seems like it’s plucked from a Norman Rockwell painting or an American folk song, that’s because it is. This tiny town (population 1,947) nestled in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts has had an outsize influence on American art. I was visiting because two of the town’s most important institutions — the Norman Rockwell Museum and Chesterwood , French’s summer home and studio — are both celebrating their 50th anniversaries this year.
Stockbridge still felt like the town with “three stop signs, two police officers and one police car” that Arlo Guthrie sang about in “Alice’s Restaurant ” when my sister-in-law, Rachael, and I arrived for an overnight visit to explore Stockbridge’s artistic landmarks.
We were visiting in the spring, before the crush of summer tourists arrived from Boston, New York and beyond, and when the weather could still be chilly and unpredictable, which meant we had the town and its sites nearly to ourselves.
We escaped the blustery afternoon by stepping in to the Red Lion Inn’s cozy lobby, where a fat cat named Norman (the hotel’s “feline lobby ambassador”) was curled on a worn red velvet sofa, napping in front of a crackling fire.
The Red Lion Inn is a grand dame of a hotel that’s older than America itself — it’s been in operation since 1773 — and everything about it seems of another time: The bird cage elevator; the fireplaces, metal beds and claw-foot bathtubs in the guest rooms; and the thickly carpeted hallways so packed with art, antiques and ephemera that the hotel offers guided tours of its collection.
We wound our way through long hallways and up curving flights of stairs to the third floor, where we dropped our bags (and breathed a sigh of relief that we weren’t in Room 301, purported to be the inn’s most haunted) before heading to our first stop, the majestic Chesterwood, French’s bucolic summer escape from New York City from 1896 until his death in 1931 .
“It is off the beaten path, and I think that’s why French wanted to make his summer home here,” Donna Hassler, Chesterwood’s executive director, told us as she walked us through French’s former home, studio, and gardens on the 122-acre property. “His whole aesthetic was about beauty: Beauty in his life, beauty in his art and beauty in nature.”
Chesterwood, a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, offers visitors a fascinating glimpse into how French cultivated that aesthetic. In the carefully crafted formal gardens of French’s own design, he and his family entertained other artistic luminaries of the day, like Edith Wharton, Henry James and Isadora Duncan. A Woodland Walk of thoughtfully laid out footpaths winds through the wilder woods beyond the manicured gardens.
“I like to say he sculpted the landscape here as well,” Hassler said.
The family’s main residence at Chesterwood is equally beautiful (though in need of the extensive interior renovation that’s underway), and its plentiful windows and French doors draw in the beautiful outdoor landscape. Hassler says they eventually hope the home will house a new residency program for artists, writers, scholars and guests.
But it was French’s Henry Bacon-designed sculpting studio that really took our breath away, with its soaring 26-foot-high ceiling tall enough to accommodate large-scale equestrian statues, a 50-foot-long porch overlooking Monument Mountain and the clever railroad-style tracks hidden under the floor that extend outside, allowing French to push his sculptures outdoors as he worked to examine them en plein air, the way the public would view them once complete.
The studio held smaller treasures, too: Various plasters of the Lincoln Memorial statue, all in different sizes; French’s saws, bench and other tools; and an exquisite study of plaster hands hanging from the wall, a reminder of how much emotion Lincoln’s hands — one open, one clenched — communicate in the Lincoln Memorial.
“He wanted to convey his openness as well as the conflict he was facing,” Hassler explained.
The next day, Rachael and I explored the work of a very different — but no less iconic — Stockbridge artist at the Norman Rockwell Museum, a space imbued with the friendly, open, and welcoming spirit of his work.
There, the art felt at once familiar and fresh. Famous images, like the cheeky “Triple Self Portrait” of Rockwell gazing in a mirror while painting himself, and the family road trip painting “Going and Coming,” that appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, are so recognizable and comforting that they feel like they’re part of our collective DNA.
The museum displays all 323 of Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers, but most of the museum is dedicated to those and other images in painting form.
“For every cover, he did a large-scale painting in oil or watercolor,” Margit Hotchkiss, the museum’s chief marketing officer, told us.
Seeing his famous images in that way brought a new dimension to Rockwell’s work, allowing us to truly appreciate the small life moments, beauty and exquisite detail that filled each piece. His paintings seemed to breathe.
“Rockwell was the master of getting a whole story into the picture frame,” Hotchkiss said. For instance, she points out small details in the painting “The Marriage License” that show the viewer that it’s late in the day — the bare flagpole outside, the waning light, the bored and slightly annoyed look on the clerk’s face as he waits for the couple to finish their paperwork. It is Rockwell’s masterful storytelling, Hotchkiss says, which inspired two other gifted storytellers to collect Rockwell’s work: Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
The museum also provides a look at the artist’s process. For instance, Rockwell often painted from photographs and used his neighbors as models, and we see evidence of that with “The Gossips,” which began with a photo montage, then a sketch and finally the finished painting and magazine cover.
Rachael and I felt Stockbridge’s pull even as we drove home, to quote James Taylor, on “the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston ,” and thought about its summer full of celebrations. The events commemorating Chesterwood’s 50th anniversary as a National Trust Historic Site kick off June 1 with “A Moveable Feast of the Arts” with food, music, dancing on the lawn, a tableaux vivant on the terrace, and a master sculptor working in the studio. A new biography, “Monument Man: The Life & Art of Daniel Chester French,” by Harold Holzer, has also been published.
The Norman Rockwell Museum, meanwhile, will have three special exhibitions running June 8 to Oct. 27 as a celebration of its 50th anniversary. They’ll examine the illustrated art of 1969; provide a peek into Rockwell’s private life; and delve into Rockwell’s relationship with the renowned psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. The museum will also host a reunion of Rockwell’s models on June 30. There’s a book included in this celebration, too: A reissuing of Rockwell’s autobiography, “My Adventures as an Illustrator.”
Although we visited in spring, Stockbridge really is a town for all seasons, with the Berkshire Botanical Garden, Naumkeag’s Gilded Age mansion and gardens, and Tanglewood, which straddles Stockbridge and its neighboring town, Lenox, coming into full bloom in the summer. It charms winter visitors with its annual restaging of Rockwell’s painting “Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas,” complete with vintage cars from the 1940s and 1950s, softly glowing storefronts and a sparkling Christmas tree in an upper window where Rockwell’s studio once was.
As Mary French once said of the town, “we loved it from the first moment we looked upon it.”
Pecci is a writer based in New Hampshire. Her website is alexandrapecci.contently.com.
More from Travel:
The Red Lion Inn
30 Main St.
This iconic and historic Berkshire hotel is located in the heart of Stockbridge’s downtown. Rooms from $185 per night.
The Red Lion Inn
30 Main St.
The Red Lion Inn has four restaurants — the Main Dining Room, Widow Bingham’s Tavern, the Lion’s Den pub and the seasonal outdoor Courtyard — that are open to guests and non-guests, as well as a 500-bottle-plus wine list and live entertainment. Pub entrees start at $12.
Michael’s Restaurant of Stockbridge
5 Elm St.
Extensive menu of comfort food, pizza, pasta, salad and its crowd-favorite signature chicken wings. Appetizers start at $5.
Once Upon a Table
36 Main St.
Cozy bistro with American-style fare. Appetizers start at $5.
3 Williamsville Rd.
The summer home and studio of American sculptor Daniel Chester French. Open weekends in May and daily from May 25 to Oct. 27. Adults $20 per person .
Norman Rockwell Museum
9 Glendale Rd./Route 183
This museum is devoted to Rockwell’s art and also displays other illustration art in rotating galleries. Adults $20 per person; children under 18 free.