Mary Whalen Leonard: Memories of kind, caring Rockwell
Deborah Solomon's book, "American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell," struck me with sadness, disbelief and disappointment. Given that there were details of Norman Rockwell's life I did not know, it was informative. However, some of the writing and interpretations, as well as purported facts, left me dismayed.
I was the model for the "Girl at Mirror" as well as two other Post covers ("A Day in the Life of a Girl" and "The Shiner"), two series of the Four Season calendars, several advertisements, and I was one of the two girls on the Kellogg's Corn Flakes box. Between the ages of 10 and 12 I spent several hours at Norman Rockwell's studio, and these times, so deeply etched in my mind, still bring lovely memories of delight and enjoyment.
Norman, as he told me I could call him, treated me first and foremost with respect. In posing for the "Girl at the Mirror" he was particularly sensitive. He sensed I was uncomfortable posing in a slip. He told me his story. When he was a boy he came to a moment when he knew he was growing up. He wanted to be handsome! He spent time in front of a mirror trying to get his hair just right. And now he wanted me to sit in front of the mirror and dream about the beautiful woman I would become.
He told me that there would be a doll cast aside in the picture; playing with dolls was finished. Instead there would be a comb, brush, lipstick and a compact. It was time to grow into becoming a woman.
Then off I went to the studio bathroom to change into the slip. I sat on a stool, and little by little we worked on a pensive expression. It was all that simple. There is subtle and quiet energy in the picture, but to put the focus on Solomon's assertion that "the doll could almost be masturbating" seems outrageous.
Ms. Solomon's concern that the girl at the mirror "could be a boy; her left shoulder bugles a bit and her adjacent trapezius muscle (to the left of the spine) is also beefy" seems a bit harsh. Further on she admits that the girl might have been a tomboy. That is accurate. I was a tomboy who enjoyed playing any ball game that was happening in our yard or neighborhood.
Other models posed for this picture yet Norman chose to use me. It was clear that he knew what he wanted in a picture, and he took his time finding his way to the finished product. I wonder if Ms. Solomon availed herself of the photographic materials having to do with this picture.
In her October article in Smithsonian Magazine "The Real Norman Rockwell." Solomon comments on Rockwell's portrayal of girls:
"Boyishness is presented in his work as a desirable quality, even in girls. Rockwell's figures tend to break from traditional gender roles and assume masculine guises. Typically, a red-headed girl with a black eye sits in the hall outside the principal's office, grinning despite the reprimand that awaits her.
In the "The Shiner" I did not have red hair, nor did the girl on the Post cover. That is an odd mistake to make. My recollection of working out this picture with Norman is one of laughter and fun. He showed me the sketch and wondered what I thought about it. I got it. It was about role reversal. For once the little girl was victorious, and it did not matter that she had a black eye. That was the mark of the trophy!
These posing sessions were filled with lots of Norman's laughter as he knelt on the floor and pounded his fists to get the smile he wanted. My guess would be that Norman was more interested in telling a story than he was in portraying the perfect feminine body.
Another lovely memory of my relationship with Norman is centered in the "Day in the Life of a Girl." The picture consists of a series of several poses of a girl's varied activities on a given day. One scene called for a bathing suit and another for a party dress. Norman surprised me with a yellow two piece bathing suit and a lovely light-pink dotted Swiss dress with a fine black velvet bow. He had called my mother to get my size, and off he went to Bennington (16 miles away) to purchase these gifts for me. I asked my mother if they really were for me. I knew he was pleased to give me the gifts.
Ms. Solomon presents a Norman Rockwell portrait that seems unbalanced. The personable and warm person I knew seldom appears in her pages. My experience and relationship with him spoke of another side of Norman Rockwell.
When he left Arlington, Vt., in the fall of 1953, the "Girl at Mirror" was in process. In February, 1954, Norman wrote me a note telling me that the picture would be coming out in March, and he hoped that I would like it. I was about 12 years old.
In the late ‘60s I stopped by his Stockbridge studio to have a recently published Rockwell book autographed. He graciously wrote a dear message to my husband-to-be, Philip and me, and then showed me around his studio. Shortly after, a wedding present arrived, broken. When I called the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, the salesperson knew exactly the item. Norman had come in and ordered the gift for us.
In the following years, when I sent Norman a Christmas card with pictures of my children I would receive a little note back thanking me for remembering him. And there was usually a little comment about what he was doing or about a picture he had done of me. I never felt abandoned by him. It brought me joy to be remembered.
In another place (New York Times Travel, Nov. 3, 2013) Ms. Solomon said "To visit Arlington is to feel the need to venture beyond it. Norman Rockwell found something good in the community of Arlington and the paintings from those years reflect the faces and lives of ordinary people living ordinary lives. Though it may be hard to capture the spirit of the town circa 1950, a bit more time and reflection might have been fruitful.
I am sorry Ms. Solomon did not make some connections in town, and that a fence interfered with her walking the meadows where Norman wandered. But even a walk down the dirt road by his home might have offered a glimpse into how the silence, and even the loneliness of the place, might have helped inspire the ideas that he captured in his powerful painting of the Vermont era.
Finally, I regret the tone of Ms. Solomon's ending: "He died much as lived -- essentially alone, with no time for love, and no time to say good-bye." Yes, Norman Rockwell's life was filled with loneliness and with complicated family relationships, not unknown in many families. Yet it seems to me that, like many great artists before him, the suffering bore precious beauty. His pictures convey the themes that unite all humankind. What he perhaps could not communicate with words he surely conveyed with his brush.
I knew from a young girl's heart that Norman Rockwell loved me. And maybe he did not have to say goodbye because he will always be with us in many ways through his paintings and the memories that were forged in that little Arlington spot among others.
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