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.”