12 Real People Who Can Be Seen in Norman Rockwell Art

Many of Rockwell's friends, family, and neighbors were immortalized in his work.
Rockwell covers from 'The Saturday Evening Post' on display in 2011.
Rockwell covers from 'The Saturday Evening Post' on display in 2011. / Oli Scarff/GettyImages

In his 1943 painting Rosie the Riveter, illustrator Norman Rockwell (1894–1978) captured the mood of 1940s America: Rosie, her shirt sleeves rolled up, is getting necessary work done on the home front in much the same way soldiers were laboring on the front lines.

The “real” Rosie was Mary Doyle Keefe, a 19-year-old telephone operator and neighbor of Rockwell’s. Using actual people—friends, acquaintances, and models—as reference for his work was something Rockwell did often, and likely contributed to his stature as one of the great artists of the 20th century. Take a look at a few more of the individuals who lent Rockwell (and the world) their faces.

1. Ruby Bridges and Lynda Gunn // The Problem We All Live With

Ruby Bridges is pictured
Ruby Bridges in 2017. / Dimitrios Kambouris/GettyImages

While Rockwell’s work often evokes nostalgia for a simpler era, it can also serve as a reminder of tumultuous times. In 1964’s The Problem We All Live With, a young Black girl is seen being escorted to a newly-desegregated school by four United States marshals. Behind her, tomatoes and graffiti dot the wall as fresh evidence of racial prejudice. (You can view the painting here.)

The girl was Ruby Bridges, who in 1960 walked to school in New Orleans as the first Black student allowed into William Frantz Elementary following a federal desegregation order. Unlike most of the people Rockwell used for visual inspiration, he and Bridges never actually met: Rockwell relied on photographs of her as a reference. He also recruited an 8-year-old named Lynda Gunn, who was a friend’s granddaughter, to model the walk for him.

Bridges didn’t become aware of the work until the 1970s. The painting was later loaned to the White House for a 2011 exhibition where Bridges was an invited guest. Gunn, who is not often credited for the modeling work, was not. She told The New Yorker in 2011 that she was honored to contribute to the painting but wouldn’t have minded a royalty over the $10 fee Rockwell offered.

2. Bess Wheaton // Freedom From Want

'Freedom From Want' is pictured
'Freedom From Want.' / Library of Congress/GettyImages

Part of Rockwell’s Four Freedoms series, Freedom From Want (1943) depicts a family coming together for Thanksgiving. Thematically, it’s a metaphor for having all you need in both sustenance and love. (Though Rockwell worried some might perceive the feast as overabundance.) And while there’s plenty of detail to savor—one guest is looking directly at the viewer—it’s the matronly woman serving the turkey who stands as the focal point.

The proud chef is actually Rockwell’s real family cook, Bess Wheaton, who prepared the golden brown turkey and the other food on the table for Rockwell’s reference, a banquet the family consumed to avoid being wasteful.

Wheaton wasn’t the only model in the painting. Rockwell’s second wife, Mary, appears to the right, next to Rockwell’s mother, Nancy, while neighbor Jim Martin is the guest breaking fourth wall.

3. Carl Hess // Freedom of Speech

'Freedom of Speech' is pictured
'Freedom of Speech.' / swim ink 2 llc/GettyImages

Another in Rockwell’s Four Freedoms series—the other two being Freedom of Worship and Freedom From FearFreedom of Speech (1943) captures a blue-collar man standing up to speak his mind during a public assembly.

The man was Carl Hess, a resident of Arlington, Vermont, who was a self-employed mechanic, though Rockwell only made use of his likeness. The painting itself was inspired by another Arlington man, James Edgerton, who had spoken up at a town meeting over concerns about a tax increase. But it was Hess, Rockwell believed, who possessed the same kind of earnest disposition as Abraham Lincoln. Hess can also be seen as one of two men playing checkers on a Rockwell cover for The Saturday Evening Post.

4. Jim Stafford // Window Washer

Norman Rockwell is pictured
Norman Rockwell. / John Springer Collection/GettyImages

In 1960, Rockwell painted a scene of a window washer (which you can view here) for The Saturday Evening Post. The man, seemingly fearless, is more concerned with the stenographer inside the office than on his work.

The figure on the scaffolding is Jim Stafford. Unlike many Rockwell models, who were located near Rockwell in Arlington, Vermont, and later Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Stafford was a fan of the artist who wrote a letter asking if he could see his studio. Rockwell agreed, but it was soon clear to Stafford that Rockwell had another motive in mind. He used Stafford for the window washer figure, inviting the young man to stay at his house for a few days to shoot photographs for his reference. Rockwell even offered to introduce Stafford to the model posing as the stenographer, but Stafford declined. He later became a renowned artist in his own right.

5. Mary Whalen // The Young Lady With the Shiner

Rockwell’s 1953 painting of a young girl who appears to have stuck up for herself was informed by another community connection: an 11-year-old named Mary Whalen that Rockwell considered perfect for the part after meeting her at a basketball game and painting her for another composition—a Plymouth ad. (She also happened to be the daughter of Rockwell’s lawyer.) Whalen later recalled that Rockwell offered $5 and a Coca-Cola as a modeling fee.

It should go without mention that Rockwell did not need to have anyone punch the little girl for verisimilitude’s sake. He tried to achieve the effect with charcoal, but when that proved ineffective he simply added it to the painting. The principal’s door, however, was genuine. Rockwell had one taken from an elementary school and brought to his studio.

6. Howard Lincoln // The Scoutmaster

Howard Lincoln is pictured
Howard Lincoln (center) posed for Rockwell. / Otto Greule Jr/GettyImages

Rockwell enjoyed a long association with the Boy Scouts of America, painting several compositions of the club. Among the more prominent is The Scoutmaster, a 1956 portrait of young Scouts camping under the watchful eye of their mentor.

Among the boys sleeping under the stars is 12-year-old Howard Lincoln, who was attending a Boy Scout gathering in Irvine, California, when Rockwell approached him and some other boys and solicited their participation. Rockwell arranged for the kids to set up their gear and build a fire despite it being a 90-degree day. He used the photographs as reference for the piece, which was included in a calendar.

While eventful, it was not strictly Lincoln’s sole claim to fame. He grew up to be a lawyer who later became chairman of Nintendo of America. The video game company helped back a purchase of the Seattle Mariners in 1992; in 1999, Lincoln became chairman and CEO of the team.

7. Duane Parks // Homecoming Marine

Many World War II illustrations depict the heat of battle. In Homecoming Marine, Rockwell paints a more serene picture that is no less evocative. A soldier has returned from the front lines to try to explain his experiences to a rapt audience in a mechanic’s garage. The weight of wartime appears to hang over all their heads.

The earnest man in uniform was Duane Parks, a Vermont local and Marine whom Rockwell met up with at a dance. Parks had served as a gunner in the war. “I was at a dance down in East Arlington,” Parks later recalled. “[Rockwell] came up and asked me how I’d like to have my picture painted. I told him where to go.” The ornery Parks had no idea who Rockwell was, but his family did. After they encouraged him to reconsider, he visited Rockwell and accepted $10 to sit for photos.

Rockwell found models for the two boys in the painting closer to home. To the Marine’s left is Rockwell’s son, Peter; to the right is his son, Jerry.

8. Bob Hamilton // We, Too, Have a Job to Do

Rockwell turned to a likely source for this 1944 portrait of a Boy Scout: a troop member. Scout Bob Hamilton posed for Rockwell in this propaganda piece that encouraged Scouts (and others) to collect cans and rubber for the war effort. Hamilton later recalled that Rockwell didn’t like the neckerchief slide he was wearing and asked him to switch it.

9. Joan Lahart and Francis Mahoney // The Marriage License

Rockwell’s 1955 portrait of young love—and one jaded clerk—was informed by real-life engaged couple Joan Lahart and Francis Mahoney of Lee, Massachusetts. Rockwell specified the canary yellow dress so it would contrast against the warm wood tones of the clerk’s office.

The clerical worker also has a real counterpart. Rockwell asked Jason Braman to pose, knowing Braman’s wife had recently died and hopeful the work might take his mind off it.

10. Fred Hildebrandt // Sport

Rockwell enjoyed fishing, and it’s likely he had once found himself in a position similar to that of the person in Sport, a 1939 illustration in which a man’s fishing excursion is ruined by rain. The outdoor enthusiast is Fred Hildebrandt, a close friend of Rockwell’s who once accompanied him on a nine-day fishing trip.

The friendship between Rockwell and Hildebrandt soon ebbed, though it wasn’t a result of the painting. Hildebrandt was an artist himself, who, according to Rockwell biographer Deborah Solomon, may have bristled at being in Rockwell’s shadow.

Sport also holds the somewhat ignoble distinction of being one of Rockwell’s stolen works. After selling for roughly $1 million in 2013, the painting’s buyer placed it in a New York storage unit, where it soon disappeared. A private investigator got an anonymous tip and recovered it a few months later in Ohio.

11. Cathy Burow // Prom Dress

Norman Rockwell is pictured
Norman Rockwell. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

Burow is unique in the Rockwell canon for being one of the models the artist didn’t recruit from his local haunts. In 1948, Rockwell was staying in Los Angeles when he approached 14-year-old Cathy Smith (later Burow) with an offer to pose for his portrait of a teen preparing for prom. Smith, who had the blessing of one of her junior high teachers and was accompanied by him when Rockwell visited her house, agreed. The result was Prom Dress, which you can see here. Burow’s lone complaint when recalling the episode decades later was that Rockwell had promised she could keep the prom dress he had acquired. According to Burow, Rockwell had borrowed it from a dress supplier and had to give it back. Instead, Rockwell gave her $10 and a hamburger.

Read More Stories About Art Here:


12. Norman Rockwell // Triple Self-Portrait

Like many artists, Rockwell sometimes found inspiration in the mirror. For Triple Self-Portrait (1960), Rockwell cheekily portrayed himself as slightly more dashing than he believed he was in person. That was accomplished by the fiction of his painted alter ego having fogged glasses and thus unable to render himself accurately. It was an ironic bit of self-deprecation for an artist who reflected American life.