Did My Grandmother Pose for Norman Rockwell?

Eleonore Kimbel Taylor, undated, unattributed illustration

Hi. Barb here.

I’ve been having a Maggie Summer adventure. For those of you who haven’t read Lea Wait’s Shadows of a Down East Summer

Hey, why haven’t you? What are you waiting for?  Go buy it here. I’ll wait.

Okay, and we’re back. Anyway, in it, Lea’s protagonist Maggie Summer investigates a story about two girls who posed for Winslow Homer at Prouts Neck in the summer of 1890.

A few weeks ago, my husband Bill and I took advantage of a talk I was doing at the (gorgeous) Lee Library in Lee, MA to spend a few days at the Red Lion Inn in the Berkshires. On the first day, we visited Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount, which I totally recommend. We also saw King Lear at Shakespeare and Company, which was fantastic.

But when we went to breakfast on the second morning, the dining room was abuzz. We were traveling in that vacation news bubble and didn’t know that there’d been a fire overnight at a transformer recycling company in nearby Ghent, NY and everyone was urged to stay indoors and turn off their air conditioning.

So we scrapped our plans for the day and decided to revisit the Norman Rockwell Museum because it is, at least, indoors.

We’ve been before and I do love the place. I think Rockwell is a consummate story-teller. Even though I’ve seen it several times, I still teared up looking at “The Problem We All Live With,” just returned from being on loan to the Obama White House, both because of the subject of the painting, and because of what it meant for it to be hanging in this White House.

But after the main tour, I started poking around investigating something I’d wondered about for years. On a much earlier trip to the museum, I’d come around the corner in a exhibit on Rockwell’s early years in advertising and come face to face with…my grandmother. I was so startled, I think I even jumped.

Rockwell ad for Raybestos brakes “I’m thinking about my kiddie,” 1922

As a child, I’d overheard references to my grandmother modeling for Rockwell, but this was in the sixties when both Rockwell and my grandmother were still alive and the references were in the “Man, we should have held on to those pictures,” vein. I think honestly I only heard it once or twice and I wasn’t sure if the story was apocryphal. It made some sense, yes. Rockwell was working in New Rochelle, New York in the late teens and twenties, which is where my grandmother lived, but beyond that, who knew? I didn’t think to write down details about the drawing when I saw it at the museum or take a photo.

My grandmother on a Life Magazine cover by C. Coles Phillips, December 15, 1921

But then, a few years ago when I helped my parents move, I found a couple of other illustrations my grandmother had posed for. That seemed to put a little more meat on the bones of the story. So this summer while we were at the museum, I spent time looking through the catalog trying to find that picture and came up with several advertisements that might possibly be my grandmother. And when I got home, I went back to the scrapbook and looked up those other illustrations.

Both have notes on them in my grandmother’s distinctive handwriting that say, “Eleonore Taylor by Coles Phillips.”

C. Coles Phillips was a well known American illustrator who lived and worked in New Rochelle until he died tragically young in 1927 at age 47. He owned his own advertising agency where one of his first employees was his fellow art school student, Edward Hopper.

My grandmother, Eleonore Kimbel Taylor, in a Scranton Lace ad, by C. Coles Phillps, 1922

The first item in the scrapbook was a December 15, 1921 cover of Life Magazine. The “fadeaway” technique of having the outfit and background be the same color is something Phillips was known for. Once you know what you’re looking for, you can find these covers all over the web and I ordered copies for family members.

The second item was just a fragment, an ad for Scranton lace, but you can find the full ad on the internet and I ordered an original via ebay. As with the Life covers, Coles Phillips did a whole series of these ads. This one appeared in the Ladies Home Journal in February, 1922 when my grandmother would have been a junior at Smith College.

My grandfather, Richard Morrow Ross in a Lord Calvert whiskey ad, 1945

But did my grandmother pose for Rockwell? Why keep copies of the Phillips illustrations and not the ones by Rockwell? Of course, I never saw any of them out in her house.  Which is odd because the advertisement for Lord Calvert whiskey my grandfather posed for was always displayed. Maybe when I was growing up in the fifties and sixties, 1945 just seemed a lot closer to my grandparents than 1922 did. The drawing at the top of this post I found tucked in with her page from her high school yearbook.

I wrote to the archivist at the museum, Venus Van Ness (which should totally be a character name, don’t you think?). She said they do have some (scant) information on models and she would check. In the meantime, here are some contemporary photographs of my grandmother.

What do you think?

Note: Thanks to this post, I got an answer to my question, which I wrote about here.

Photo 1919

Photo 1919

Photo 1922

Photo 1925

About Barbara Ross

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries. Her books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Portland, Maine. Readers can visit her website at www.maineclambakemysteries.com
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11 Responses to Did My Grandmother Pose for Norman Rockwell?

  1. Lea Wait says:

    Thanks for the plug for Maggie, Barb! And — what fun to have had relatives who not only posed — but for such famous artists! I definitely see your grandmother in some of those ads … I think you should assume she’s there — in spirit if not in truth. I’ve been meaning to get to the Rockwell Museum but never seem to be near there at a time I can stop. Memo to self: Do it! Thanks for sharing what must have been a really fun adventure!

  2. I think you have her mouth! What a great story.

  3. thelma straw says:

    I was going to say she was there, at least in spirit… then I saw Lea’s comment… so there must be truth in it!!! Thelma in Manhattan

  4. Ali Ross says:

    Wow! What a great mystery! I’m sure there must be a way to track this down, and the Rockwell museum sounds like a good place to start. Your grandmother was beautiful and these images are so special, thank you for sharing!

  5. Lenore says:

    Great Story Barb. I think you should submit this to the PBS show History Detectives. Will make for an interesting show.

  6. Lisa Philpott says:

    I just love your writing! I think this posting alone has the makings of a whole mystery novel, and with someone like Venus Van Ness involved, how could you not write more about it!!!

    My .02 on the topic of your grandmother. I think she did pose for Rockwell.

    And my last .02 – I feel the same way as you about the painting “The Problem We All Live With”

  7. Robert Berridge says:

    Hello Barbara,

    When you have a moment, please feel free to contact me concerning your grandmother and Norman Rockwell. I believe I have the information you’re seeking.

    My best,

    Robert Berridge
    Norman Rockwell historian

  8. Pingback: Did My Grandmother Pose for Norman Rockwell? The Answer | Maine Crime Writers

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