PARIS, Mo. • After a long delay, art critics now recognize paintings such as “Norman Rockwell Visits a Country Editor” as treasures. At auction Thursday, it fetched $11.5 million from an anonymous bidder.
The irony, though, is priceless.
Its value has soared while the newspaper industry it was intended to depict has faded.
To capture the life of a small-town newspaper editor in the 1940s, Rockwell, working as an illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post, ended up at the Monroe County Appeal in tiny Paris, Mo.
There, he found Jack Blanton, an editor of more than 50 years who not only had ink in his veins, but whose fingers were shortened by a printing press accident when he was a boy learning the craft from his father.
The painting captured the idealistic spirit for which Rockwell is known. There is a sense of something fun and important happening. Blanton, in the center, puts the finishing touch on one last editorial before deadline. His staff is hustling. There are customers in the lobby, including the rare appearance of Rockwell himself.
“Rockwell is painting a subject that is fundamental of who we are as a nation — our free press, freedom of expression,” said Laurie Moffatt, director of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.
Many copies of the painting have been made. For years, the original hung outside of The Reliable Source, a bar in the National Press Club in Washington.
Curtis Publishing Co., which published the Saturday Evening Post, donated the original to the club by 1967, according to Christie’s Auction House.
Now the press club, which bills itself the world’s leading professional organization for journalists, says the painting’s appraised value had jumped so high that insurance for it had become very costly.
“We received some good news early on in the process” of reviewing options, John Hughes, president of the club, said in an October announcement with the headline: “Rockwell Sale Is Legacy for the National Press Club.”
“We learned we could have a highly precise replica of the Rockwell made that could hang in its usual place outside the Reliable Source and be enjoyed by Press Club members for generations to come. We could even put the replica in its original frame! To the naked eye, this replica would look just like our original Rockwell.”
Hughes essentially said the spirit of the painting, the story it tells, will not be lost and the sale of the original will fund better journalism for years to come.
SMALL TOWN, BIG FIGURE
As it turned out, Jack Blanton, the editor who inspired the Rockwell piece, couldn’t be replicated.
The Saturday Evening Post story about him in 1946 said Blanton was “perhaps the best known country editor in the United States.” Under his leadership, the Appeal advertised paid subscriptions for rural northeast Missouri and overseas; weekly circulation was 3,000.
Blanton knew a lot of people in Missouri and around the world. He was a former president of the Missouri Press Association. He was on the parole board. For more than two decades, he was on the board of curators at the University of Missouri.
From the town of Paris, about 140 miles northwest of St. Louis, he’d write editorials about Russia, changing technology and drought. In 1942, Blanton famously ran a large headline saying: “Lord, We Confess Our Sins, We Ask for Forgiveness, We Pray for Rain.” Not only did it rain, it rained too much.
In response to a distinguished service award from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Blanton wrote: “Nothing, I believe, pays larger dividends in the way of personal satisfaction than an editorial that is translated into a better school, or a better road, or a better attitude towards life, or a broader conception of the privileges, possibilities and responsibilities of American citizenship.”
Into his 80s, he wrote a feature column called “When I Was a Boy” that also ran in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. He died in 1955, at 85, still working.
Blanton’s grandson, Carter, a fourth-generation newspaperman, sold the family’s share of the paper in 1992.
“He liked the idea of retirement and living off of income from the paper, which is what he did,” said Carter Blanton’s daughter, Becky Vanlandingham, of Monroe County.
Today at the Appeal, there’s a faded copy of the Rockwell painting in the foyer, a new boss and a third of its former circulation in the town that now has 1,220 residents.
The latest buyers of the paper have ties to the Chicago area. The country editor is now Dan Crockwell, 60, whose background is in newspaper delivery, not journalism.
He’s been at the helm since he lost his job in St. Louis as head of a company that distributed the Post-Dispatch and other newspapers.
This week, the paper struggled to make deadline. Not for a last-minute editorial, but for technology glitches. Townspeople complain that the paper isn’t what it used to be.
Crockwell, who also took on another weekly in neighboring Ralls County, said he likes the change of pace.
“It’s a whole different mindset than what it was in St. Louis,” he said. “It’s all about simple life. It’s more of a part of the community than a metropolitan paper.”
Most of the material is submitted, not reported.
Crockwell has four employees at the Appeal, including his wife and one part-time reporter, Hazel Bledsoe Smith, 83. She and her husband used to own a few small-town newspapers in the region. Once they sold, and her husband died, Smith missed it.
“Most everything interests me,” Smith said. “That is why I really miss reporting. It gives me a reason to be nosy.”
A recent story she followed in the Appeal was about The Lake Gazette newspaper in nearby Monroe City being unwilling to run a marriage announcement for a gay couple.
AN ARTIST APPRECIATED
Rockwell was known as the people’s painter. Until recent decades, art critics played down his work as idealizing and sentimental. They viewed Rockwell as an illustrator, whose narrative work told an explicit story.
Fine art, rather, was harder to understand, open to interpretation.
“We now have the tools to analyze Rockwell’s paintings as mythic constructions that speak to collective ideals, that represent us to ourselves in ways we can all recognize even though they may not reflect the actual conditions of American society,” said Angela Miller, an art history professor at Washington University.
“And we should remember that occasionally Rockwell also confronted what was wrong with the nation as well, such as his moving images of civil rights struggles in the 1960s.”
The 2013 sale of Rockwell’s painting “Saying Grace” changed the market. It sold for $46 million, one of the highest tabs paid at public auction for American art of its kind in recent decades. The sale, and other pieces by Rockwell, motivated the National Press Club to get a new appraisal for “Country Editor.”
Then came the decision to sell. Including fees, it garnered $11,589,000, the fourth highest at auction for a Rockwell piece; 70 percent of the proceeds are supposed to go to the press club, the rest to an institute that offers journalism training.
“We will have additional resources to carry out our missions for many years to come,” Hughes, head of the press club, said in the news release.
All aren’t pleased, though.
Becky Vanlandingham, 72, remembers working for Jack Blanton, her great-grandfather, when she was a young girl. She said his legacy is being lost in the hubbub over the high-dollar sale.
“I just wish, since it was about the country editor, that part of this money will come back to the University of Missouri School of Journalism for a scholarship in Jack Blanton’s name,” she said. “I just think that’s only fair.”
While some people interviewed in Paris didn’t know about the famous painting, one who did was Denny Hollingsworth. He didn’t want the painting to be sold, especially to an anonymous bidder who may not share it.
“I am very disappointed,” said Hollingsworth, a former editor of the Appeal who continues to submit material for publication.
Still, outside of his room at a nursing home, hangs a copy of “Country Editor.” That will have to do, and has.