Paying Tribute to an American Original

The excitement of the elderly man visiting the Norman Rockwell Museum was obvious. He had just spotted a 1918 Saturday Evening Post cover by Rockwell showing a sailor who had an anchor tattoo.

“The old man laughed and exclaimed, ‘That sailor with the tattoo is me,’ ” Marshall Stoltz, the Philadelphia museum’s curator, recalled, adding: “He showed us a faded anchor tattoo on his arm.”

Like the elderly man, “people who posed for Rockwell’s paintings identify themselves to us” with frequency, Stoltz said.


In an Edward R. Murrow television special on Rockwell shown in the museum, others recall their modeling experiences: “He provided me with a rosary so I could be a Catholic for a day,” said one woman. “The soldier coming home on that cover is my brother. The little girl is me,” another declared.

It seems a fitting legacy for the man whose paintings epitomize Americana. In two other museum locales--Stockbridge, Mass., where the artist lived and painted from 1953 until he died at age 82 in 1978, and Arlington, Vt., where he lived and worked from 1939 to 1953--hundreds of people also posed for Rockwell.

“At one time or another, most everyone in the village modeled,” Bea Snyder of the Stockbridge museum staff said. “When Norman Rockwell lived here, everybody knew him. He’d walk from his house to the Post Office every day to get his mail and would visit with everyone he met. He and his wife, Molly, rode their bicycles down Main Street.”

At the Rockwell museum in Arlington, all five staff members posed for the famed illustrator. One, 82-year-old Maggie Brush, recalled that she, her husband, their two children and the town’s doctor each got $5 for posing for a well-known Rockwell work, “Country Doctor.” It was a centerfold in the Saturday Evening Post in 1947.

The doctor “was shown seated at his turn-of-the-century desk,” she said. “I was in a chair beside him holding the baby (her daughter, Ann). My husband stood behind my chair. We posed looking concerned as though little Ann was ill. Our boy sat in the corner with a worried look on his face.”

“Every once in a while someone says I’m a historian,” Rockwell told Murrow in the TV special, originally broadcast in 1957. “I tell them all I’m doing is painting ordinary, everyday things.”

It is Stockbridge’s Rockwell museum that claims to have the biggest collection of the artist’s original works, amounting to more than 500 paintings. Rockwell left the bulk of his personal collection and his studio to the facility, which is breaking ground next month for a larger building.

Included among the originals are paintings used for 24 Saturday Evening Post covers, covers from other magazines, greeting cards, books, movie posters and sheet music. Rockwell also illustrated advertisements for Nabisco Shredded Wheat, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Coca-Cola, Sears Roebuck & Co., Beech-Nut Gum and many other firms. Posters produced from his war bond series raised more than $130 million during World War II.

Rockwell originals now sell for $40,000 to $240,000, according to Snyder, although “we never sell any of his originals. We keep adding more and more to the collection as we can afford them.”

“No one captured America like Norman Rockwell,” said Stoltz, a 53-year-old former high school science teacher who runs the museum with his brother Donald, a doctor. “He was as much at ease painting kings, statesmen, Presidents and movie stars as he was at painting freckle-faced boys, pigtailed girls, kindly old folks and lovable dogs.”

Rockwell achieved instant acclaim when he was 22 and walked into the Curtis Publishing Co. in Philadelphia with an assortment of paintings tucked under his arm. He sold three for Saturday Evening Post covers.

His first Post cover appeared on the May 20, 1916, issue. It shows a pouting boy dressed in his Sunday best pushing a child in a wicker baby buggy as two other boys in baseball uniforms walk by. One boy tips his baseball cap to the embarrassed lad, who stares straight ahead. Rockwell’s final Post cover, Dec. 14, 1963, was of President John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated less than a month earlier.

All 324 of Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers are on display in the Philadelphia museum, located in the former Curtis Publishing headquarters.

“It’s amazing that as the years pass since his death, Norman Rockwell’s popularity is as strong now as ever,” Snyder said.

But even the artist didn’t consider all his paintings successes. Indeed, one of the current special exhibits at the Stockbridge museum is called “Norman Rockwell’s Flops,” based on a chapter of Rockwell’s autobiography about paintings that in his eyes just never made it.

One “flop,” a calendar painting called “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow,” shows the legendary cow that caused the Great Chicago Fire turning to look at a lighted lantern behind a hind foot. Rockwell observed in the autobiography: “Not that it was a bad painting, but who wants to look at the rear end of a cow for 12 months?”