Art Collecting

Farmers’ Granddaughter Sees Norman Rockwell Painting | Nebraska today | Pro Club Bd

Though closed while new exhibits are being prepared, the Sheldon Museum of Art gave Indiana native Peggy Steed Montarsi the opportunity to see Norman Rockwell’s The County Agricultural Agent during a stop in Lincoln.

Montarsi’s grandparents and their children served as Rockwell’s models for the oil painting used to illustrate a July 24, 1948 article on county expansion. Montarsi offered reporters from the Lincoln Journal Star, KOLN/KGIN TV and KLKN TV tidbits of family stories about the painting.

Montarsi, a Wind Lake, Wisconsin-based crop insurance claims adjuster, spent much of July in Nebraska reviewing claims from hailstorms in the Kearney area. She wanted to see the Rockwell painting before making the 10-hour drive home. After she called the university to ask where she could see the painting, Sheldon officials agreed to open the gallery to her.

The painting is special to her family, she said, because her late grandparents, Don and Martha Steed of Jay County, Indiana, were the dairy farming couple depicted in the painting.

The painting shows her late father, then 13-year-old Larry Steed, holding a chicken. Also pictured are her aunts Sharon Steed Smith and Jama Steed Fuller. Everyone watches as Harold Rippey, a county agent, misses a Guernsey calf in front of a red barn.

Many of her family members have small prints of the artwork, she said, but few have seen it in person. Montarsi saw it before, during a 1997-98 show in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

“It’s worth seeing in person,” said Montarsi, noting the complexity of the painting. Details such as the marks on the tape measure the agent uses to measure the calf to the shadows of the hay visible in the barn door behind her father are not visible in the smaller prints, which belong to family members. “I could spend hours looking at it.”

The painting has been part of the Sheldon Museum of Art’s collection since 1969, donated by Lincoln philanthropist and former department store magnate Nathan Gold, who purchased it in 1951. The County Agricultural Agent was on display in the dining room at Gold’s Department Store many years before it was donated to Sheldon. Erin Hanas, Sheldon’s curator of academic engagement, described the Rockwell work as one of the most popular works in the collection.

The Rockwell painting is among those chosen by the museum for Clocking In: Visions of Labour, a new exhibition on labor-related themes that opens August 16.

The County Agricultural Agent is a favorite of Chancellor Ronnie Green, whose academic background is in beef research. The painting underscores the importance of university expansion for agriculture.

“The painting is very meaningful to me,” Green said. “I sense a big history with it.”

Although Rippey worked out of Purdue University in Indiana for the extension, he has many colleagues and followers in Nebraska who work closely with farmers and ranchers to ensure they have the latest information and technology to run a successful farming business to lead.

In addition to exhibitions at Sheldon and around the country, the painting was on display at the Nebraska Center for Continuing Education (now known as Hardin Hall) for long periods between June 1969 and March 1995.

Montarsi offered tidbits of family lore to reporters from Lincoln Journal Star, KOLN/KGIN TV and KLKN TV who came to interview her. These treats included:

• The red barn in the background actually belongs to the neighbors, she said. Rockwell preferred this color to the Steeds’ white stable;
• The two daughters normally wore dresses on the farm, but at Rockwell’s request they changed into blue jeans;
• The painting contains 13 animals, including chickens, a border collie and four cats; and
• The Guernsey calf was not showworthy and the Steeds planned to get rid of it.

The painting shows a cat sitting on her grandfather’s shoulder – which she thought seemed atypical for him. And the chicken in her father’s arms?

“My father didn’t like chickens,” she said, laughing. “Holding a chicken isn’t something he would normally do.”

Once one of America’s leading publications with a peak circulation of about 6 million, The Saturday Evening Post frequently featured covers painted by Rockwell. The Steed family were likely chosen to model because they were active in 4-H and other county expansion activities and knew Harold Rippey, whom the Post described as “the typical county agent.” Montarsi said Rockwell took photos of the family for reference while painting and accepted their invitation to a fried chicken dinner. She doubted the Steeds knew how famous Rockwell would become or that the painting would gain national recognition.

Tears welled in Montarsi’s eyes as she discussed the 36″ x 70″ artwork. The farm, bought by her great-great-grandfather John Steed in 1824, was sold a few years ago. Her aunt Jama, now in her 90s, is the only family member who is still alive.

“It’s the people,” she said. “It’s the culture. Everything disappears. A hundred years have passed. My grandfather said he didn’t have to leave Jefferson Township (where the farm was located). He was content to live there, farm and prepare food. It meant so much to him.”

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