Norman Rockwell’s Sense of Humor: “Mermaid”


I am a Norman Rockwell fan and I have been studying his life and work. Norman Rockwell was brainstorming one day and he came up with a humorous idea for a painting. A Maine lobster fisherman catches a mermaid in his lobster trap. Rockwell went through quite a long process to go from the initial idea to the final painting.

After coming up with an idea, Rockwell would do some free hand sketches and explore several different ways to develop his idea.

Fisherman photo studies. Norman Rockwell Museum.

The next step was to hire one or more professional photographers to do dozens of photo studies for the various parts of his painting. He was very meticulous. For Mermaid he had photos created of lobster shacks and lobster boats that might end up in the background of his painting. He had a number of closeup photos made of a large fish that he could use when he created the mermaid’s tail fins. You can see all of the Mermaid photo studies (“reference photos”) at the link below.

Mermaid photos studies. Norman Rockwell Museum.

Rockwell would go through the photo studies and decide on how the various elements of the painting would come together.

Fisherman with lobster trap photo study. Norman Rockwell Museum.

The fisherman photo studies were created with and without lobster traps. Note the books under his right foot to give the impression he is walking. As Rockwell would pick and choose, some of the photo studies would match his vision better than others. He does not have a pipe in his mouth, but Rockwell added a pipe later in the process.

One of the Mermaid photo studies. Norman Rockwell Museum.

Rockwell preferred hiring his neighbors to be the models for his photo studies. But in this case he made an exception and hired a professional nude model to be the mermaid. Rockwell’s photographer was so embarrassed by the presence of the model that he never came out from under the black cloth on the back of his camera during the photo shoot.

Mermaid drawing. Norman Rockwell Museum.

With his preferred photo studies for reference, Rockwell would do charcoal drawings to work out the details of his painting. Then he would do color sketches, and finally, one of more color paintings. He would experiment with various details of the painting. Eventually he would arrive at his final painting.

Mermaid, The Saturday Evening Post.

Mermaid was the August 20, 1955 cover of the Post.

Ron Schick wrote a fascinating book about the photos behind the paintings and all the work Rockwell did during the photo studies to get them like he wanted them. See the second link below.


Mermaid, The Digital Collection at the Norman Rockwell Museum

Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera by Ron Schick.