Outward Bound

Claire Williams, of Stockbridge, Mass., posed for artist Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) in advertisements for Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance in the late 1950s.


Claire Williams, of Stockbridge, Mass., posed for artist Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) in advertisements for Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance in the late 1950s. Williams was in town recently visiting her daughter and was on hand for the opening of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ exhibit American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell, running through May 31. Williams is also a docent at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, which organized the show. We talked with her about her experiences with Rockwell.

How did you come to be a model for Rockwell?

I lived in Stockbridge all my life, and when he came to live there in 1953 we were still quite a small community; everyone knew everybody. My husband was a selectman, and he became friends with Rockwell. He asked different people in the community to pose for him. I’m in five different ads for Massachusetts Mutual. I would pose for him and he would sketch. He would take many, many, photographs. My session in 1959 probably didn’t last more than two hours at the most. Anyway, the ads appeared in magazines, such as the Saturday Evening Post. Massachusetts Mutual is still located in Springfield.

You were paid for your work, weren’t you?

Yes, $25. I had the presence of mind to Photostat the check, and then I cashed it. He made a point to tell his models to please cash his checks, so his checkbook wouldn’t be such a mess. I don’t think he knew how popular he was, or how famous he would be even after death.

I suppose you’d have to be quite patient as a model.

Not necessarily, because he had ways of getting the expression he wanted. There’s a video that Peter Rockwell gives of his dad in our museum [the Norman Rockwell Museum], and he says something like, “Pop had an elastic face. If you couldn’t give him the expression he wanted, he’d hop from behind that canvas and make all kinds of faces at you to get it.” You’d be surprised at the expressions he could get from all ages of people, from Boy with the Baby Carriage on the first Post cover to Rosie the Riveter. It’s amazing.

Tell me something about Norman Rockwell, the man.

Very down-to-earth. He could mix in a crowd and you would hardly know he was there. He was very likable. He’d hold the door for you if you were going into the post office. You’d see him going across Elm Street to get his paper, or sometimes he’d be sitting on the porch of the Red Lion Inn [on Main Street, in Stockbridge]. You might see him there on a rocking chair, watching people as they walked by. He’d have his pipe in his mouth, just relaxing. He’d ride his bicycle around noontime on a nice day; he’d already been working in his studio from 8 until noon or 1 o’clock.

Did you know his family, his sons?

Yes, Jarvis, Tom, and Peter — I know all of them. In fact, Peter will probably be at our museum this summer. He’s a sculptor. Tom is a writer. He wrote [the children’s book] How to Eat Fried Worms. Jarvis, the eldest, is an artist.

Those were children he had with his second wife?

Yes, Mary Barstow, who was from California. She died in 1958, then he married Molly Punderson, a retired schoolteacher from Stockbridge [in 1961]. She taught English. You’ve been a docent at the Norman Rockwell Museum for 25 years … Twenty-five years in August.

What do you like about your work?

I love the people. The people come in and make you feel like a million dollars. I can sort of feel the group, how much they want to know through me talking, or if they’d rather just look at the paintings. I have a French background and speak French fluently, so sometimes French people come in who speak very little English. Some of my friends who are docents say, “Oh, Claire’s here today; let’s find her.” They just glow when they find someone who can speak their language.

Do you have a favorite image among Rockwell’s works?

Mine is Spring Flowers [which appeared as an illustration for the May 19, 1969, issue of McCall’s magazine]. I’m a gardener. I just love to get my hands in the soil; there’s something about it. By the way, there isn’t a human being in that painting. There’s just a robin in the doorway, a little shed, flowers, a chair, gloves, and a hat.

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