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Lucky Catch

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Norman Rockwell illustration of a man carrying a mermaid in a lobster trap

Nude needed: For this 1955 cover illustration Rockwell skipped his usual practice of asking locals to pose for him. Instead he went to New York and hired a professional model. (© SEPS)

A Rockwell nude? Well, almost. When Mermaid surfaced on the August 20, 1955, cover of the Post, public reaction was swift.

“You have reduced your magazine to one to which any decent American would rather be without or hide because of the obscene picture on the cover,” wrote a reader from Worcester, Massachusetts. “Do not like lobsters, but think mermaid O.K.,” opined another from New Jersey. “What bait is best? Do I need a license?” joked a reader from Three Rivers, Michigan.

Unnerved by the response, Post editors hurriedly polled a sample of readers and were relieved to find that only about one in 20 considered the image obscene. Rockwell’s wholesome reputation could not be so easily tarnished. Most felt, as one Alabama woman noted, “Norman Rockwell couldn’t draw an obscene picture.”

Rockwell said little about this painting, except to note that the idea  came from visits as a student to a seaside resort in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Whatever his inspiration, the painter labored over the work with his usual attention to detail. He recruited an 81-year-old Gloucester, Massachusetts, lobsterman to pose for the painting. For the fish tail, Rockwell bought and photographed a 12-pound pollack. But anticipating the scandal that might ensue if he asked one of his neighbors to pose nude, the artist hired a professional model. As the story goes, he packed his then 19-year-old son Peter in the car and drove to New York. “When we got to the modeling studio, there were six young women waiting, each holding a photo of themselves in the nude,” Peter recalls. “In the painting, my father carefully covered the mermaid’s breasts with the bars of the lobster pot, but some still called it lurid and pornographic.”

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  • Gino Cirignano

    This tongue-in-cheek painting has nothing to do with pornography and is very tastefully done. Mermaids are a fantasy he captures perfectly. I can see Norman Rockwell winking at all of us when I look at his beautiful illustration. Once again, the master at work.

  • alice cauley

    norman rockwell is so great.it would have cause less cunfusion if he would have just put like a bikini top on the mermaid.

  • ivan ratzlaff

    Oh how wonderful to come to realize what a fabulous result our recent laws which have imposed limits on harvesting specific species of ocean fauna, must certainly have contributed to the grand evolutionary process of bringing about such a beautiful specimen as depicted by the Post, partially, perhaps leaving ample nutrition in our waters enabling this fantastic creature to mature to adulthood.

  • Clementine

    Great Norman Rockwell Portrait. The word ‘obscene’ used to describe this is ridiculous and a definite ‘Misnomer’!! PLEASE?? “Some things never cease to amaze me”! (Elvis Presley) TCB!

  • Cheryl Hogle

    I do not see what the problem is with this delightful Rockwell cover art! I also do not think it should be thought of as a “nude” since mermaids (if they exist) certainly do not were clothing any more than lobsters do and no on calls them “nudes!”

  • MARCIA GUINN

    i think the mermaid and the expression on the fisherman’s face are precious. hooray for norman rockwell and son. she is so cute.

  • I love my large Norman Rockwell book with every POST cover from 1916-1963, yet I somehow… ‘missed’ this cover. What a lovely memory for his son to have had accompanying his Dad doing the work needed for the perfect cover!

    Your article’s great Patrick. I’ll have to come up with a new name for this particular cover. I succeeded in getting this website to re-name his ‘Sunday Morning’ cover (May ’59) to ‘Bad Dad’ a couple of years ago. It will always mean a lot to me as it’s one of my most favorite Rockwell’s, and I like to think of him giving me an approving nod and smile with that pipe in his hand.

  • Paige Holmes

    Good Evening,

    By any chance, can the Gloucester identity of the lobsterman in this photo be established? Was curious because for the last four years I have been collaborating on and editing Cape Ann (thriller/detective/romance) novels with author Barry Stacks.
    We sprinkle cameo bits and pieces of local history throughout our stories. Please see a sampling of our slightly undiscovered work, right here: http://www.gloucesterlostboy.com
    Thank you, > Paige Kippen-Holmes