Norman Rockwell’s models shed light onto who the artist was
STOCKBRIDGE -- Norman Rockwell is as American as apple pie. Or, maybe it would be more appropriate to say apple pie is as American as Norman Rockwell.
Luckily, visitors to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge didn’t have to choose between the two.
Hundreds flocked to the museum on Saturday to experience an apple pie baking contest, Rockwell’s art and discussions with the artist’s former models and neighbors for a July Fourth weekend celebration of one of America’s most beloved artists.
Father and son duo James "Buddy" and Jim Edgerton, neighbors of Rockwell’s when he lived in the small town of Arlington, Vt., shared stories of the Rockwell family and of working for him as a model in several paintings. In total, more than two dozen of the Edgerton’s family members modeled for Rockwell.
As a young child in the early 20th century, Buddy said he would model for Rockwell’s paintings with his dog. Both he and the dog would get a check for $5 every time -- quite a bit of money in those days, he said.
Buddy Edgerton, who authored the book "The Unknown Rockwell" with Nan O’Brien about his experience living next door to the artist, remembered the Rockwells as having more money than his family but never showing it. The Rockwells waited to paint their house until the Edgertons had enough money to paint theirs, he said.
Claire Williams, who modeled for Rockwell’s commissioned work for Massachusetts Mutual Life advertisements, remembered Rockwell as a normal guy in town who "didn’t know his own worth." Williams, a Stockbridge resident, received a $25 check for her modeling work -- much to the ire of her husband, who only received $10, she joked.
Williams said Rockwell would go to the Stockbridge Post Office when he lived in the Berkshires, tap someone on the shoulder, ask who he or she was, and ask the person to be in one of his paintings.
"He was just a wonderful human being," Williams said.
Williams praised Rockwell’s work for its accessibility.
"You can go to any of those [Saturday Evening] Post covers and you could find something that relates to something that you love to do," Williams said. "If it’s just playing marbles, or even a baseball game."
State Rep. William Pignatelli, D-Lenox, also spoke about his experience modeling for Rockwell as a 9-year-old boy. Pignatelli’s father was Rockwell’s electrician, he said. That connection led to Pignatelli dressing in a spacesuit and posing for Rockwell’s well-known "When I am an Astronaut" in 1969, the year the first American astronauts landed on the moon.
The work was commissioned for a long-out-of-print encyclopedia, Pignatelli said, which he was recently able to track down a copy of.
Pignatelli never knew what became of the original copy of "When I am an Astronaut" until, recently, when he received a call from a Chicago-based appraisal company. It was working to assess the value of the painting from a private collection Pignatelli said, and wanted to verify the painting’s history. They found Pignatelli through a simple Google search.
Today, the illustration is probably worth close to $200,000, Pignatelli said. For his modeling work, he received $40.
Pignatelli went to Chicago and was actually able to meet the family that had hung the painting over its fireplace for years.
Though he doesn’t own the original illustration, Rockwell let Pignatelli keep the spacesuit he wore. It’s now in the archives at the Normal Rockwell Museum, after Pignatelli donated it a few years ago, he said.
"My career peaked at age 9," Pignatelli joked.
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