A Norman Rockwell Moment for Hugh Briody

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Island snowbird Hugh Briody and his wife Sue celebrated his 70th birthday recently by revealing a lifelong ‘secret’. And what a story!

For those of us whose childhood happened in the 50’s, much of what we learned about the world came from magazines. One in particular, The Saturday Evening Post, also featured original paintings by Norman Rockwell on its covers for a few years – fine art available at the local newsstand. For those of us who enjoyed the covers and ads Rockwell created, we all had our favorites. Remember the cover that featured a forlorn little boy sitting in the vet’s office, with his little dog held in his lap? How about the Massachusetts Mutual Insurance ad showing a little boy with an apple in one hand, his lunch pail and a book in the other, on his way to school? Those are two of the Briody’s favorites; the little boy in both of them is Hugh. For whatever reasons, Hugh never talked about this with people. But after years of coaxing, Sue finally convinced him it was time to let the cat out of the bag.

Hugh and his family moved from New York to Bennington, Vermont when he was two years old. When he was six, “dad bought a house at the end of dirt road in Arlington, way out in the sticks, north of Bennington.” In those days, the first and second graders in town went to school in a room over the post office.

Rockwell, as well as iconic painter Grandma Moses, were neighbors outside of town. Rockwell’s was a beautiful, idyllic place right on the banks of the Battenkill River, which was a well-known spot for trout fishing. “All kinds of famous people came there fly fishing, including President Eisenhower.” Rockwell’s riverside farmstead had a beautiful white house and a refurbished barn that served as the painter’s studio.

Hugh says Rockwell came to town now and then, looking for people to model for his paintings. In 1952, Hugh was 7 years old, and in the second grade. “One day, he came into our little school house, and picked me out and this other little girl. The next thing I know he was calling my mother and asked if it was okay to use me. My mom knew he was famous and she was excited about it.”

Norman’s first wife, Mary (who a few years later passed away and prompted Rockwell’s move to Stockbridge, Mass in 1957) came and picked Hugh up in a 1948 woody station wagon. The little dog featured in the vet’s office illustration was in the car. “So me and the dog are in the backseat, and doesn’t the dog get carsick! Mary drove really fast, and it scared me. She drove like a maniac.”

But Mary, Hugh and the dog all arrived safely, and Hugh was brought to the studio for his modeling session. “When I got there, there was a gentleman named Gene Pelham. He was a photographer – he was an artist also, but his main thing was photography.” Rockwell positioned Hugh with the dog – how to hold his head, what face to make, with Gene was clicking his camera all along. “I was out of there pretty fast. I was probably there for about an hour. If you look at that painting, there are a lot of people in the periphery, but none of them were there that day; they were all photographed at different times.” That session became the focal point of the painting called ‘Waiting for the Vet’ as it appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on March 29, 1952.

Hugh was asked to come model for a second time. For that session, apparently Rockwell had asked Hugh’s mom to dress her son in particular attire – a cap, a white shirt and bow tie, suspenders, short black pants, black and white saddle shoes, and brightly colored striped socks. This time, his mom drove him to the studio, much to young Hugh’s relief. “So, I got to the studio, and Gene was there again.” The artist positioned Hugh, gave him a tennis ball, which would become an apple, and put books under his feet to simulate a walking gait. “We’ve got those photographs,” and Rockwell used one photo of Hugh exactly as it was taken, “except for the shoes.” This session became an ad for Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance called ‘Back to School’, which ran in The Saturday Evening Post, Time, Newsweek and Life Magazines 1952-1954.A Norman Rockwell Moment for Hugh Briody

Hugh says specifics of what the artist might have said to him while he was modeling are hard to remember. “I was only seven,” but he says Norman Rockwell was a very nice man. “That I do remember. And he paid me $5 which was a fortune to me at that age. It bought a lot of stuff at the penny candy store.”

Norman Rockwell used local people as models for almost all of his illustrations and paintings. He cranked these out monthly for the Saturday Evening Post and advertisements for a lot of different companies – Coca Cola, Liberty Mutual, Mass Mutual – and he mixed and matched faces, body parts and clothing to achieve the exact illustration he wanted to create.

Sue, an artist herself and recently retired art teacher, explains how Rockwell worked. “He had photographs taken of things and people, many different angles and versions of the same things or actions. You could fill a phonebook with the names of all the people who posed for him. There is a book called ‘Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera’ (by Ron Schick – LIttle, Brown and Company, Publisher) which explains exactly how Rockwell did his paintings. He had Gene take all these photographs, then made collages of the exact angles and body parts he wanted in the illustration, then he’d paint from that.” Because of that method, some critics said Rockwell wasn’t an artist, but simply an illustrator. Sue does not agree. “He was under deadline. He had a vision of what he wanted the painting to look like. But then he would use whatever resources were available to him to make that vision come true. The vision was his own, and that’s what made him an artist.”

Hugh and Sue have been happily married since 1980, and have been Fort Myers Beach snowbirds since then, buying an island roost of their own in 1991. The story of how they met, and what they have done in their careers is another great story, too long to tell here. Let’s just say that the story of Hugh Briody’s ‘brush’ with Rockwell is just one vivid image in a very full, successful collage of a life.

Jo List