STOCKBRIDGE, Mass. -- Claire G. Williams was 29 when she modeled for Norman Rockwell, whose illustrations for Saturday Evening Post still define for men and women of a certain generation what it means to be a good, patriotic and faithful American.
Some 49 years have passed since Rockwell himself phoned her. She still remembers the event in detail. The periwinkle dress she wore. Her two-hour studio session with Rockwell -- she posed while he sketched. Rockwell’s studio, now preserved on the grounds of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., looks exactly as it did then. The Shalom sign, the brushes meticulously cleaned, an African Christ hanging on a cross, a Zenith radio.
“We came through the door right there,” Claire said on one of her recent tours. She's retired now, and her husband has passed away, but she still volunteers at the museum.
Many of Claire's former neighbors show up in Rockwell's famous illustrations. The postmaster is a model for an Imam in The Golden Rule. The dry goods store owner is a town hall clerk, waiting on a young couple applying for a marriage license. Then there's a classic Rockwell painting called "The Runaway," in which a little boy and a policeman are sitting together at a lunch counter. "That's Dick Clemens," she said of the policeman. "I went to school with him, and he really did grow up to be a state trooper." The boy who modeled for the runaway is a maintenance person in the area, she said.
Claire herself appeared in advertisements illustrated by Rockwell. Laminated reproductions of the black and white drawings show her younger self in a series of domestic scenes that ran in magazines around the country. She remembers receiving a phone call from a friend on the other side of the country who recognized her in an ad.
Claire marveled at the details of Rockwell's illustrations, how he used light and shadow, how he captured moments in ordinary lives. "It seems he brings good out of everything," she said.
She finds these intimate moments and their echoes of faith and values still resonate with those who take her tours. Rockwell was raised Episcopalian, served as an altar boy, but didn’t attend church in later years, said Stephanie Plunkett, chief curator of the Norman Rockwell Museum. Rockwell wasn’t religious, although he painted Freedom of Worship and The Golden Rule, two paintings that depict American ideals of liberty and treating others as you would like to be treated.
“He painted America like what he wanted it to be,” said Claire, herself a lifelong Protestant, born and raised in Stockbridge, where she has attended the First Congregational Church on Main Street all her life. It is the same church where the fire and brimstone colonial preacher Jonathan Edwards once preached.
“All the values that I feel are in the paintings. You don’t have to look very hard to find them, I feel. My values anyway,” she said, then paused. “I wonder what the values are that people have today.”