Pretty Picture: Ripon man subject of Norman Rockwell portrait

jjardine@modbee.comMay 29, 2013 

— The artwork is so unmistakably Norman Rockwell that it really doesn't need his trademark signature in the lower right-hand corner.

Rockwell was Mr. Main Street USA. His work spanned more than six decades and depicted life in small-town America ranging from families to kitchens to the Boy Scouts, to fishing, to wartime themes and beyond. They graced some 322 covers of the Saturday Evening Post over 47 years, then Look magazine for a decade more, according to the Norman Rockwell Museum website.

Unlike many other artists, Rockwell recognized the benefits of getting paid for his talents while he was still alive (he died in 1978). He painted a series of advertisements, among them depictions of Santa with an ice-cold Coke in hand.

In fact, the commercial aspect of Rockwell's career is what brings us to an exhibit now on display in the Ripon Historical Society's museum located — ironically and appropriately — on the town's Main Street.

Amid the 14 wedding dresses from Ripon's townfolk dating back to 1911 is a dress hand-made by bride Barbara Vincent for her Valentine's Day, 1946, wedding to Ripon's Floyd Due. On a stand next to the dress, you'll find a sketched portrait of Floyd Due donning an American Legion cap and holding a check. The charcoal sketch is signature Norman Rockwell, including the signature.

You might wonder how an almond and grape rancher from Ripon became a portrait subject for America's quintessential artist.

Like every other exhibit in a museum, this one has a backstory. It can be told in no small part because Barbara Due took the time to put it down on paper for her children and future generations before her death nearly a year ago.

Here goes:

Floyd Due, a Ripon-area almond and grape rancher who died in 1995, had served in the Army Air Corps during World War II and then joined the American Legion. Years later, the Legion became the first organization to offer "specific group" disability insurance coverage to its members through a company called Association of Group Insurance Administrators.

Due took out a policy through his American Legion post in 1965. It helped out greatly a year later, when a pancreatic ailment left him unable to work.

"He received the very first claim check through the American Legion Department of California hospital income plan," said John Wigle, president of the Association Group Insurance Administrators and son of the company's founder.

Wanting to promote the plan, the insurer commissioned Rockwell to do the sketch. He wanted to use someone from his hometown of Stockbridge, Mass. as a model.

"Rockwell had commented on an outside selection, 'What if he's fat; What if he's cross-eyed?' Barbara wrote.

No matter. The company insisted on using one of its claims recipients.

"Some six months after his benefits were paid, (Floyd) received a phone call from the American Legion headquarters in San Francisco," Barbara Due wrote. "The telephone call related that Floyd had been selected as a model for a charcoal sketch to be used on a brochure which would be solicited as a nationwide Legionnaire insurance promotion."

So in the late summer of 1966, Floyd and Barbara flew to Massachusetts and then traveled about three hours west to Rockwell's studio in Stockbridge. When the artist met Floyd, he fixated on the rancher's tanned face and weathered hands.

"Oh, you'll do just fine," he told Floyd.

He gave them a tour of his studio, and the next day Floyd sat for a round of still photographs that Rockwell later referred to while sketching. Just one hang-up: Floyd wore a dark coat. Rockwell decided it wouldn't look good on paper.

"Rockwell subsequently ran over to his house and came back with two of his own jackets for Floyd to try on," Barbara wrote.

It didn't matter that Floyd's arms were longer than the artist's.

"Don't worry about the short sleeves," Rockwell told them. "I can paint them in. All I need is color value."

Rockwell then grabbed a cancelled check he'd written to a wine company for $126.55, using it as a prop to illustrate how the company paid its claims. He handed it to Floyd to hold in the photos, later giving it to him as a keepsake.

Floyd and Barbara spent the rest of the week in New England before heading back to California.

"But it was a bittersweet return," LoBello said. "My grandfather (Bob Vincent) had had a stroke."

Rockwell, meanwhile, finished the sketch and shipped it to the insurance company's headquarters in Carpinteria, near Santa Barbara. It hangs in the executive board room to this day.

The artist sent the Due family several copies, including the one now exhibited along with the insurance brochure and Barbara's wedding dress at the museum.

And he also sent them one of the studio photos taken of Floyd, adding at the bottom, "My best wishes to my friends Barbara and Floyd Due, Sincerely, Norman Rockwell."

A signature piece of Americana, from Mr. Main Street USA himself.

A backstory explained.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.

See the exhibit in the Ripon Historical Society's Clarence Smit Museum, 430 W. Main Street Wednesdays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., or by appointment by calling docents Connie Jorgensen at (209) 985-3186 or Debbie Nutt at (209) 818-8444. On Facebook: Ripon Historical Society.

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