Norman Rockwell's Child Models Remember The Artist

Aug 11, 2014

The artist Norman Rockwell moved to Arlington, Vermont in 1939 and lived there with his family until 1953. During that time Rockwell produced some of his best-known work. His neighbors and their children often served as models for his paintings. Rockwell and his work are generating renewed interest and debate. One of his paintings recently sold for more than $46 million.

A recent biography rates his Saturday Evening Post covers and calendars as fine art. But it paints a darker picture of Rockwell himself, as distant, obsessive, a hypochondriac with possible homoerotic tendencies. The models at a recent gathering at the Bennington Museum took issue with that.

"That biography put Norman in a different light than we knew him," former model Buddy Edgerton says. "The people I know, the models I knew, never had anything even come close to those insinuations."

"As anybody knows who posed for Norman, it had to be right." - Mary Whalen

Edgerton’s family and the Rockwells were next door neighbors.

"Their kids and my family, we grew up together," Edgerton says. "We all modeled: my grandmother, my dad, my mom, my sister and myself, my dogs, we all had a chance to model at one time or another."

Ruth Skellie was 11 when Rockwell showed up at her grandparents’ farm in his rattletrap car, looking for a freckle-faced red-haired girl who could shoot marbles. He’d already spoken with her parents. Skellie says he asked her if she had a green and white dress.

"And I said yes," Skellie recalls. "And he said, ‘Could you wear that?’ And he said, ‘I want you to make sure that your pigtails are still on. With ribbons." Rockwell paid Skellie $5, his standard fee. She says she spent the money on a Mickey Mouse watch.

Ruth Skellie posed for 'The Marble Shooter' in 1939.
Credit Susan Keese / VPR

Bennington Museum curator Jamie Franklin says that Rockwell drew on real-life scenes. But he says there’s always an element of fiction in Rockwell’s paintings.

"He captured a reality, but it’s always a staged reality," Franklin told the standing-room only crowd that turned out to hear Rockwell models’ stories or reminisce about their own encounters with Rockwell and his family.

Mary Whalen posed for Rockwell many times. She says he always knew exactly what he wanted. And he always took the time to talk with her and explain the story he wanted the painting to tell. Whalen posed for A Day In the Life of a Little Girl, a series of vignettes in a single frame. Rockwell had been criticized for an earlier work, A Day in the Life of a Little Boybecause it didn’t show the boy saying his prayers at bedtime.

Whalen says he almost made the same mistake in her painting. He called Whalen’s mother in a panic and said, 'We’ve got to add another picture.' Whalen says, "As anybody knows who posed for Norman, it had to be right."

"And when we got there," Whalen says, "He said, 'Mary, I don’t know anything about saying prayers. So you go over there and you kneel down as if you know how to say your prayers.' I think it was very indicative of Norman. He listened to his people. He wanted to please people."

Whalen also posed for The Shiner, the now-famous painting of the school girl with a black eye. She says Rockwell struggled with that black eye.

"He captured a reality, but it [was] always a staged reality." - Bennington Museum curator Jamie Franklin

"And he was getting a bit frantic -- because as anybody knows who posed for Norman, it had to be right." Whalen recalls.

Finally Rockwell put an ad in the paper and found a boy in Massachusetts with just the shiner he was looking for. He painted the boy, and put his black eye on Whalen.

The models say Rockwell was a workaholic. Melinda Pelham’s father took many of the photographs that Rockwell liked to work from. She recalls him calling on Christmas to ask her dad to come and work. She says it was the only time he ever said no to the man who turned his neighbors, and their town, into American icons.