CAPITAL REGION, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Norman Rockwell fans have something to celebrate — the recent anniversary of one of his most iconic illustrations. NEWS10’s Anya Tucker spoke with a Vermont woman who is very close to this special piece of art. Mary Whalen Leonard shares what it was like to work with the artist who told the story of America, not with words, but with a pen and paintbrush.

Seventy years ago, Mary Whalen Leonard was the young model for Norman Rockwell’s “The Young Lady With The Shiner” featured on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on May 23, 1953.

Mary told Anya that she was around 11-years-old when Rockwell discussed the idea of the illustration with her by asking her a question. “He said to me, ‘Wouldn’t you like to beat up your brothers?’ I had three brothers, so that kind of filled me with a little bit of glee,” she said. It was the kind of imagery that was pure Norman Rockwell.

The painting is among Rockwell’s most famous works of art created at what became his home studio in the sleepy town of Arlington, Vermont. It is today an inn aptly named Rockwell’s Retreat. Kevin Harter is the proprietor, and he gave Anya a tour of the studio where Rockwell worked from 1943 to 1953. “This is where Mary came in?” asked Anya. “Yep,” Harter said. “She came in and she would model for Norman. Five bucks and a Coke.” $5 and a Coke was apparently Rockwell’s standard modeling fee.

Many of his subjects were town residents and friends. Mary’s dad was Rockwell’s attorney. She became one of the artist’s favorite models featured in several of his most famous works, such as “The Day in the Life of a Little Girl”. “He [Rockwell] would set everybody [the models] up as a director. His photographer, Gene Pelham, would take the pictures, develop them in the dark back room, and then Norman would sit down. In any one of his one single paintings, he would have dozens of photos to work with,” described Harter.

“I had to look as if I had been through a real feisty fight,” recalled Mary. And she did. The viewer does not know who STARTED the fight, but we definitely know who ENDED it: the triumphant girl waiting outside the principal’s office. Mary, of course, did not have an actual black eye. She says Rockwell first tried rubbing charcoal under her lower lid and when that didn’t work, he placed an ad in the local paper, and a dad with a boy who had a real shiner offered some ideas for proper coloring. The artist later added the black eye to Mary’s face on canvas.

What about that crooked, triumphant smile? Mary explains that as a kid she didn’t smile very easily. “So, he [Rockwell] finally got down on his hands and knees and he just banged the floor. I thought, ‘How ridiculous. What are you doing down there,’ and I smiled. And right away, he said to Gene Pelham, the photographer, we got it.”

And an American classic was born.

When it came to finding the perfect backdrop, the artist didn’t have to look far. Across the state line at the elementary school in Cambridge, New York. He actually had the principal’s door taken off its hinges and brought it back to his studio. Decades later, science teacher Steve Butz would salvage the door during a school renovation project. It is now part of a display he created.

“The door is original,” Butz told Anya, who asked if the bench in the painting is the same one used in a classroom. “The bench is not,” responded Butz. “There’s been a lot of rumors about the bench.” The display in the school hallway even includes a photo of a student who recreated the iconic image years ago when she got a shiner herself while playing basketball.

Mary jokes that she “peaked” early as a model. She grew up, got married to a college professor and moved to Arizona, raising her children there. However, she returns to Vermont to visit with family and says she enjoys reminiscing about her days spent with Rockwell whom she described as being down to earth and a good friend to many of his neighbors.

The archival cover of the May 23, 1953 Saturday Evening Post featuring Mary is among 323 on view in a large rectangular room at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. This May marked the cover’s 70th anniversary. Rockwell famously said, “I paint life as I would like it to be.” Looking back to her time with Norman Rockwell, Mary expressed her hope that his deep sense of humanity and optimism will still translate in the same way generations from now. “I think he had a way of capturing the essence of who we are. We are different people. But we also have a sense of unity in our country. I think he captured that.”

Norman Rockwell died in 1978, but he left an indelible mark on the art world and on our social consciousness. His surviving models still meet for reunions, like one recently held at Rockwell’s Retreat.

Rockwell’s work continues to inspire other artists, including locally. Photographer Tom McMorris of Salem, New York, recently created a video project interviewing former models and surviving family members of models.

Many of the images featured in this story were filmed with permission from the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Featured artworks by Norman Rockwell are part of the Permanent Collection of Norman Rockwell Museum, and/or in the Norman Rockwell Art Collection Trust with copyrights held by:

Curtis Licensing, The Saturday Evening PostIndianapolis, IN. All Rights Reserved.

Norman Rockwell Family Agency. All Rights Reserved.

No portions of this segment may be used without permission of Norman Rockwell Museum.