Indiana woman visits Rockwell painting of her family at UNL museum

A special visit was arranged for an Indiana woman at the Sheldon Art Museum. Her family served as models for a Norman Rockwell painting decades ago.
Published: Jul. 27, 2022 at 6:44 PM CDT|Updated: Jul. 28, 2022 at 7:33 AM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - The UNL Chancellor’s Office arranged a special Sheldon Art Museum visit for Peggy Montarsi, a crop insurance adjuster from Indiana. She was passing through Lincoln for work when she decided to visit a Norman Rockwell painting.

The painting holds a special place in her heart because it depicts her family’s farm from over 75 years ago.

“I don’t think anybody really understood how big it would have been at that time because it was just this guy coming by taking pictures and having chicken dinner at the house,” Montarsi said. “And then it becomes an article in the magazine all over the nation.”

In the mid-1940s, the Saturday Evening Post was doing an article on a typical county agent. For illustration suggestions, Rockwell contacted Purdue University who put him in touch with Harold Rippey, the agent of Jay County in Indiana. Rippey asked Peggy’s family to model for a reference photo, since they were heavily involved in farm life and 4H.

The painting was titled “The County Agricultural Agent.”

It features Peggy’s grandparents, aunts and her 13-year-old father who is holding a chicken. The family and a farmhand named Champ is watching the county agent examine a 4H calf. Thirteen farm animals are also included, but some of them were added by Norman Rockwell after the photo was taken. However, Montarsi confirmed that they did have Border Collies.

This is the second time Montarsi has seen the painting in person, since it was in Indiana for a show 20 years ago.

She brought a photo of her family sitting with Norman Rockwell in their living room.

“The culture and the people of family farms are disappearing,” she said with tears in her eyes. “You only do it because you love it. It’s not to make money. It’s a lifestyle. It’s like a part of me right there.”

“The County Agricultural Agent” originally made its way to Lincoln, after it was bought in 1951 by Nathan Gold, a department store owner. Gold displayed it in the store’s cafeteria before donating it to UNL. The Rockwell piece is an exhibit highlighting labor.

“We noticed that there were quite a few works in the collection looking at agriculture from different perspectives,” said Erin Hanas, curator of academic engagement. “And the Rockwell painting seemed really perfect. 4H and the ‘County Agricultural Agent’ is really a favorite of our visitors, so we wanted to find a way to be able to include it.”

Many of Montarsi’s family members have printed copies of Rockwell’s work, and Sheldon Art Museum visitors can purchase prints too. The museum is currently closed for installations, but the painting can be viewed in person when it opens August 16.

Montarsi hopes her children and grandchildren can see the painting in person one day.

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