Despite the bitter cold temperatures heading into Valentine’s Day, a painting at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts is sure to warm some hearts.
“I guess having lived with this for 40 years I’d have to say it’s my favorite.”
The thing Bill Millis has been living with for 40 years is love…in fact, Puppy Love. The instantly recognizable painting captures a young boy with his arm around a pigtailed girl’s waist sitting on a sagging wooden plank bench staring off into the moon. As the Norman Rockwell Museum’s chief curator Stephanie Plunkett explains, the two youngsters are solely each other’s focus as they stare at that big wheel of cheese in the sky.
“Their simple fishing gear, a branch equipped with line and a blue and orange bobbin has been placed down behind them,” Plunkett explained. “And wrapped as they are, they are not aware that their bait is escaping from their can or that the dog, now a third wheel, gazes longingly out of the canvas.”
The image, also known as Boy and Girl Gazing at Moon was created for the cover of the April 24, 1926 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Recently it has resurfaced in the form of artistic parodies and a 2010 Google Doodle celebrating Rockwell’s birthday. And in 1975 it drew the attention of Millis, then in his mid-20s.
“I had written Mr. Rockwell back and forth as a 25-year-old and he’d always write me back,” Millis recalled. “I loved his work. It sort of personified how I felt about this country. One time I remember writing him and asking him if there were ever originals for sale.”
Millis says Rockwell wrote back saying there was an upcoming sale at the Bernard Dannenberg Galleries in New York City. So Millis traveled from his home in High Point, North Carolina up to the Big Apple for a private tour with Rockwell’s friend Martin Diamond the night before the sale. And that’s when he saw Puppy Love for a price tag of $27,000.
“I said ‘Can you hold it for me til Monday? I’ll take it,’” said Millis.
So why that one?
“You know the little boy and the little girl and the dog,” described Millis. “I’m a fisherman. Probably reminisced about some old girlfriends….or dating my wife. I don’t remember exactly, but I’m sort of a romantic at heart.”
Seeing recent record sale prices of Rockwell’s works at auction, some rising to $46 million, the romantic at heart was tested. Millis had in his will that the painting would go to the Norman Rockwell Museum, but says he agonized over selling it to help a ministry build churches around the world. In the end, he decided to donate it the Stockbridge museum, to much appreciation from director and CEO Laurie Norton Moffatt. She says expressing the transitional moments of life was a hallmark of Rockwell.
“Rockwell’s real love for people I think allowed him to see with such a sensitive eye the important moments in our lives and sometimes the moments that are really quite private that most people wouldn’t take the time to observe or have a chance to see,” said Moffatt.
The museum is home to about 800 original Rockwell works. Now with 34 Saturday Evening Post covers it has about 10 percent of the originals the artist painted for the influential magazine. And as for Millis? Well, he has another painting to fill his wall, but what he’s most looking forward to seeing Puppy Love next to other Rockwell greats with his four daughters.
“Nothing will replace Puppy Love, but that’s OK,” Millis said. “We’ll have it to come view in Stockbridge.”
“I guess the Red Lion Inn is still operating?” asked Millis.