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Norman Rockwell's Models

by Kathryn Boughton

The world that Norman Rockwell depicted during his long career as an illustrator is slipping farther and farther away from our high-tech society with its digital communication, high-speed travel and gadgets designed to solve problems we didn't even know we had.

Rockwell's idyllic images recall a simpler, quieter time when hometown pleasures consisted of a family ride on a Sunday afternoon, a splash in a swimming hole or a Thanksgiving dinner surrounded by kin.

Rockwell spent his final decades as a painter in Stockbridge MA where he often pressed his friends and neighbors into being his models.

Many of his works are now collected in the Norman Rockwell Museum and Friday at 2:30PM two of his former models, Marjorie Coulter, who appeared in one of his Four Freedom paintings, and Claire Williams who posed for Mass Mutual ads, will describe their experiences working with the artist.

Their appearance coincides with a reconfiguration of the galleries at the museum to explore several themes Rockwell stressed during his six-decade career: humor, heroes, and coming of age. Norman Rockwell: Heroes, Humor, and Growing Up will be on view at the museum through October 18th.

Many of the models drawn from the streets of Stockbridge became familiar faces for the American public. "He started his career in New Rochelle and then he used professional models," said Jeremy Clowe, spokesperson for the museum. "When he moved to Arlington VT he didn't have that luxury so what became his trademark was using everyday folks from off the street. He continued that through his time in Stockbridge."

Clowe said he always thought Rockwell exaggerated the expressions he painted in his pictures until he saw original photographs of the models. "He didn't take the photographs but he was the director. He made all the models very at ease, even the young children. He was a very personable individual and was able to get the expressions he wanted."

Clowe has videotaped interviews with more than 100 of Rockwell's models and he said they often had no idea of the paintings would be. "In our 'Coming of Age' gallery we have a picture of the Girl at the Mirror," he said. "The model, Mary Whalen Leonard, was 8 or 9 years old at the time and she didn't understand what he wanted. She said, when she was a teen she saw the picture and burst into tears because finally she knew what he was getting at."

The picture shows a wistful, somewhat apprehensive girl gazing into a mirror and wondering what she will become.

Another of the models, Gen Leroy Walton, recalled that Rockwell gave a "kind of wonderful direction that was almost non-direction because he knew what wanted."

Clowe said it is important to gather the memories of the models because many are becoming advanced in age. He noted that Mary Doyle Keefe, the original model for Rosie the Riveter, just passed away. "We posted a note on our Facebook page and have never seen such a response," said Clowe. "It was a neat phenomenon."

The Meet Rockwell's Models sessions will continue every first Friday and are free with regular admission.