Peace Corps Ethiopia & Norman Rockwell

There has been a great deal of buzz lately about Steven Spielberg and Norman Rockwell. Spielberrg owns something like 20 of Norman Rockwell paintings and in July 2010 there will be a special exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in  Washington, D.C.. Spielberg’s paintings by Rockwelll will join some 30 other Rockwells from the collection of filmmaker, George Lucas.

Like almost everything else in life, there is always a Peace Corps connection. Spielberg owns, “Peace Corps in Ethiopia” a painting that now hangs in the Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn Harbor, New York. It is on loan from Spielberg as part of “Norman Rockwell: American Imagist,” a traveling exhibition curated and organized by Judy Goffman Cutler.

The Ethiopia Peace Corps and Norman Rockwell connection began in 1963 when Rockwell traveled to Ethiopia, and, I believe, to visit the PCVs in India, at the invitation of the agency. While in Ethiopia he found the subject matter for two famous paintings that featured PCVs serving there at the time.

rockwell-ethiopiaThe most prominent painting is entitled, Peace Corps  Ethiopia. It shows Marc Clausen (Ethiopia 1962-64) in a field with farmers and an oxen. Marc was a secondary school teacher at the time and this painting, as all of Rockwell’s paintings, was staged. There is an article in the current Vanity Fair that details how Rockwell would stage, photograph, and then paint his illustrations, mostly for the covers of the old Saturday Evening Post magazine.

In Ethiopia, he used a camera to photograph and save images to work on in his studio back home. Asked by someone while in-country why he wasn’t showing the real conditions of the country, Rockwell remarked that Americans couldn’t handle the Third World. Instead, he said, he’d just apply a bandage to a child when he wanted to illustrate pain and suffering.

Marc Clausen wasn’t an agriculture Volunteer. None of us were in that first group to Ethiopia. We were all teachers in classrooms, far from the fields.

rockwell-jfkThe second painting that involves the Peace Corps showed President Kennedy with a cluster of PCVs. In that painting are two recognizable Ethiopia I Volunteers. The blond woman up front is Linda Bergthold (Ethiopia 1962-64) who taught school in Addis Ababa; the other Ethiopia PCV is the African American woman, Lonia Strong (Ethiopia 1962-64). Lonia served in Asmara. (If you recognize other PCVs, let me know.)

The group, as we can see, is looking hopefully into the dawn’s bright early morning light. A new day in America, or so we had hoped at the time when we were all young, and when we were all so full of hope and plans to change the world.

rockwell-barry-harris1A note from John: Because photos can’t appear in comments I am happy to post here a photo of (from left to right) Ethiopia Country Director Harris Wofford, commenter Barry Hillenbrand, Molly Punderson Rockwell and Norman Rockwell at the secondary school in Debre Marcos, Ethiopia.

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  • I have always admired Norman Rockwell’s art especially since I always hoped my life would match the ‘ideal’ his paintings showed. The Thanksgiving table painting (everyone knows it but I can’t recall a name) represented the perfect Thanksgiving setting to me, although I must confess my family never quite managed that degree of civility. I suspect that he was right in feeling that Americans in the early sixties weren’t ready for the ‘nitty-gritty’ of third world life. I wonder if the situation has changed? If we really knew how awful people’s lives are in much of the world maybe we’d do more about fixing it.

  • John: Nice item, but the history needs a bit of amending. Rockwell was a close friend of the family of John Schafer, who was a PCV in Debre Markos with me (1963-65). John’s father, a Vermonter, was Rockwell’s banker for many years. So when Rockwell decided to do a Peace Corps picture (and I don’t know the origins of the commissioning of the project), Rockwell and his wife decided to visit Ethiopia and to come visit Schafer in Debre Markos. Indeed he did. They stayed the night in Markos and even slept in our hurriedly cleaned up rooms. (I used to say Rockwell slept in my bed, but I really do not remember which room he took. There was no suitable hotel in Markos.)

    Anyway, Schafer has lots of pictures of Rockwell in Markos, as well as copies of a drawing Rockwell did of John teaching a class, and of a head portrait of John. I believe that John is the third person down from JFK in the picture you posted.

    Rockwell was an extraordinarily gracious and gentle man who spoke about his art in an attractive self-deprecating way. “I’m just an illustrator,” I recall his saying. He put on no airs, despite his being an amazingly famous person, and endured his stay in Markos–the outside toilets, the lack of running water, the rather basic food we had prepared for him and his wife–with great good cheer, despite his age (or what I thought of at the time as his advanced age). A nicer person you’d never want to meet. It was as if he stepped right out of a Normal Rockwell painting.

    I’ll send you an email with a picture I have of Mr & Mrs Rockwell, Harris Wafford and me in the school yard in Markos. I somehow can not paste it in this post.

  • This story has special meaning for me because my mother grew up next door to Norman Rockwell and his family in W. Arlington, Vermont. My grandfather, John Atherton, was an abstract oil painter who, like Norman Rockwell, paid the bills by illustrating covers for The Saturday Evening Post over many years. My mom’s first boyfriend was Norman Rockwell’s son, Tommy!

    Sadly, Jack my grandfather died at the height of his career in the early 1950’s while enjoying his other passion, fly-fishing. My grandfather also designed war posters (for which he won an award), had his abstract paintings shown in museums like the Whitney and the Met, and did plenty of covers for other magazines. In fact, when my brother Nick went to his official interview at Fortune Magazine’s offices in NY almost ten years ago and was led into the boardroom, he ended up sitting across from a framed cover of Fortune illustrated by our grandfather! (And yes, he did get the job.) Norman Rockwell, of course, lived a much longer life and went on to gain national recognition. A fun note: Rockwell’s December 25, 1948 Saturday Evening Post cover, Christmas Homecoming, features my mom at age 16, is at the very center back of the painting with her hand up, surrounded by the daughters of another artist-illustrator, Mead Schaeffer, and flanked by Norman Rockwell himself, other family members, and… Grandma Moses. Go figure.

    No direct Peace Corps connection, except that Norman Rockwell’s colleague and friend, Jack Atherton’s daughter, Mary, went on to marry and have a daughter, me, who ended up working for Peace Corps in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia….

  • One wonders where Rockwell came by the steel plow shown in his illustration. These plows were donated to Ethiopia courtesy of the old Marshall Plan following WWII. In the summer of 1963, we found them in the Ministry of Education’s warehouse, collecting rust. They were never distributed to farmers because they were too heavy and unwieldly for oxen to pull.

  • There were 4 Rockwell Peace Corps paintings, the two you described, one of an urban planner in Colombia and the other of a science teacher in India. The Colombian painting is a tall vertical one, rare for Rockwell and much to long for a Saturday Evening Post cover. I believe that he visited both Colombia and India for this series.

    Many years ago, I persuaded a client of mine, the Graphic Communications Union to donate the labor of their members and to print copies of these four paintings. A printing company donated the presses and paper. The Friends of Colombia and the Friends of Somalia joined to sell the posters of these paintings to raise money for projects in those two countries. We worked with the Norman Rockwell Foundation and paid them royalties on the posters sold. Unfortunately, we never sold as many as we thought we would, but it was a good idea. Both Friends organizations gave Sarge a framed poster of President Kennedy and Volunteers and the Ethiopian one to Senator Wofford. My recollection is we also gave a complete set to Loret Miller Ruppe.

    I have never seen the Colombian painting on display at any Rockwell Museum or in their catalogue. Maybe some Hollywood mogul has it hidden as part of a private collection and it will surface as a result of the publicity about Steven Speilberg’s connection.

    We had 2,500 of each painting printed. They were stored in locked space adjacent to the NPCA. When they moved, the storage space was inadvertently cleaned out by the building’s remodeling contractor and all the remaining copies were destroyed.

  • I am the India 8 Peace Corps Volunteer, who was a science teacher in Hyderabad, teaching my physics class, in the painting by Norman Rockwell. Does enyone know if a print of that painting is available? Thank you, Dr. Dallas Lankford, Professor of Mathematics, Retired.

  • One more addition to the identifications — that’s my husband Gary Bergthold (Ethiopia I – 1962-1964) right under Kennedy in the painting. Rockwell changed him quite a bit from the photo he took of us one snowy day in Stockbridge. He took off his glasses and changed the part on his hair, just as he did mine as well. I am indeed the blonde at the bottom, but if you look carefully you can see that when he had me comb my hair differently, my hair didn’t quite obey! But he painted in the errant hairs anyway. The other thing I have always found odd is that he chose to paint me looking down when everyone else was looking forward! Still not sure what that says!
    Linda Bergthold (Eth I – 62-64)

  • Sorry, but the painting Norman Rockwell ultimately did of the science teacher in India did not include the original volunteer. I know this because we have a copy of the print because Mr. Rockwell substituted my mother, a PC volunteer in Colombia, for the volunteer who was actually working in India. I have always suspected that’s one reason that painting, and copies of it, are so hard to find. It’s the only one in which he took such artistic liberties. As I said, I do have a copy of the print – ordered from the Norman Rockwell Museum. I would be happy to email you a picture if you would like to see it for yourself.

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