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February 11, 2023

The Reference Photographs for Norman Rockwell’s ‘The Runaway’, 1958

Before Norman Rockwell ever put paint to brush, he called in a photographer. Each photograph became the template for his final paintings. Photography was a technique Rockwell started using in the early 1930s to streamline his painting process. Pictured here is one of the reference photographs used to paint the waiter in “The Runaway,” which was the cover illustration for the Saturday Evening Post on September 20, 1958.

“I like to paint kids... people think of their own youth,” Rockwell once said and he had first hand experience as reference for this work. “I ran away from home when I was a kid in Mamaroneck and mooned around the shore; kicking stones and watching the whitecaps on Long Island Sound. Pretty soon it began to get dark and a cold wind sprang up and moaned in the trees. So I went home.”

Months earlier, Norman Rockwell asked Massachusetts State Police Officer Richard J. Clemens, who lived in his neighborhood, to pose for a cover illustration for the magazine. All Clemens was told was to meet Rockwell at the Howard Johnson’s restaurant. There Clemens was introduced to the other two models, 8-year-old Eddie Locke, and Clarence Barret, a local mechanic.

Rockwell was friends with Barret and with Locke’s father. At the restaurant’s lunch counter, Rockwell positioned the boy and the police officer with their backs to the camera. He even brought a few props, notably the handkerchief tied to a stick that was placed on the floor by the boy. Satisfied with the photograph he took, Rockwell went to work on the painting. He made some important adjustments as he worked. He omitted all references to Howard Johnson’s in the image. He also replaced Barret, who modeled as the counter worker in the photo. His face was replaced with that of Don Johnson, Rockwell’s assistant. He photographed Johnson individually and added him into the painting. When you compare the colorized version of Rockwell’s original photograph with the final painting as it appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, you can see the differences.

Don Johnson, Rockwell’s assistant.

Howard Johnson’s counter.


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