MONTPELIER, Vt. — A photographic mural by artist Norman Rockwell has been returned to its former home in Vermont's capital, drawing a close to a yearlong dispute between state officials and a museum where it hung for 23 years.
The black-and-white photograph, "Maple Sugaring in Vermont," depicts a sugar house with smoke rising from its chimney as men — including Rockwell himself — tend sap buckets hanging on maple trees outside. Made in 1947, the 5-by-7-foot mural was commissioned by Rockwell friend Col. Henry Fairfax Ayres, who lent it to the state for display.
The famed illustrator, whose paintings of farm scenes, apple-cheeked children and slices of Americana appeared for decades in The Saturday Evening Post, died in 1978.
For about 14 years, he lived in Vermont, where he struck up a friendship with Ayres, a West Point grad and war veteran who was chairman of the Vermont Sugar Makers Association and is widely credited with improving maple sugaring methods.
The mural hung in the lobby of the state Agency of Agriculture building in Montpelier for years. In 1987, the state lent it to the Norman Rockwell Museum of Vermont because building renovations had displaced it.
At the Rutland museum, it came to anchor an exhibit popular with foliage-viewing visitors and Rockwell buffs. The state never sought to reclaim it.
But last year, Agriculture Secretary Roger Allbee — who knew of the loan from twin brother Ronald, who held the agriculture secretary job before him — began making inquiries at the museum.
"They said 'No, we own it,'" said Allbee, standing in front of the mural Monday.
The museum's curator, Rachel Lynes-Bell, says it wasn't as simple as that.
"It's not like we've had it for a couple of years. We've had it for 23 years. You'd walk into the museum and boom, it was what you saw, along with a write-up about the mural and the reasons behind it and the man it was gifted to," she said.
"We had to dig and find every archive we could, because we had it so long. Having something that's the centerpoint of a collection for 23 years, it's something that has to be researched. That was the only reluctance we had. We thought it was a tragedy because we've grown such ties to it," she said.
At first, the museum challenged the state to prove ownership. The state attorney general's office was enlisted, doing research on the mural's provenance and contacting Ayres' grandson, who wanted it returned to the state and offered to sue the museum to reclaim it if all else failed.
"There were some issues, because it had been at the museum for so long, about ownership and who had what right to it," said Assistant Attorney General Mark Patane, who represented the state. "We did some research and some historical archives and talked to some of the people who were around at the time this happened."
"They recognized that we were probably correct in our analysis," he said.
Last week, it was hung in a second-floor hallway of the Agency of Agriculture's office building, across the street from the Statehouse.
"The mural is lovely and an authentic representation of sugaring in Vermont — our signature product," Allbee said.
He's thrilled to have it back in the capital. The museum curator isn't.
"It'll be seen more at the Rockwell Museum than it will be over at the Department of Agriculture. But it's not my place to say either," Lynes-Bell said.