Norman Rockwell’s model for a boy astronaut—now a state legislator—tracks down the illustration’s final destination.
Massachusetts Representative William Smitty Pignatelli, from Lenox, Mass., has served in the House since 2002. When he was 9 he was the model for Rockwell’s piece, “When I Am an Astronaut.” He got to keep the outfit, shown here at the Norman Rockwell Museum.
By Lisa Green
Smitty Pignatelli was a 9-year-old boy who loved baseball and outer space when Norman Rockwell, the great American illustrator, chose him to be the model for a boy astronaut.
For his efforts, Smitty was paid $40 and got to keep the spacesuit costume. But he was left with questions about the illustration. Smitty never saw the finished piece. He’s wondered what it looked like, what’s happened to it, and if the original artwork still exists.
Through the years, the answers to these questions revealed themselves little by little. But last year, the Norman Rockwell-inspired story finally came to a satisfying conclusion for Massachusetts Representative William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D).
It’s not like Smitty was on a quest to get the answers as soon as he walked out of Rockwell’s studio. After all, he was only 9, hardly aware that his likeness would be part of history—art history, no less. Neither was he especially impressed to be modeling for Norman Rockwell.
“We knew Norman Rockwell,” Smitty says. “He was just a guy in Stockbridge, a friend of my father’s. My father did electrical work for him. I didn’t think anything of it.”
As an adult, though, realizing the part he played in a Rockwell illustration, Smitty grew more curious about the work. But getting answers to his questions wasn’t easy, even in the era of Google.
The story of the boy astronaut is one that connects America’s greatest illustrator with a company no longer in business and a private collector whose identity is confidential.
The entire story finally began to fall into place in June 2013. That’s when Smitty received an email from an appraisal service in Chicago asking if he was the Smitty Pignatelli who posed as the boy astronaut for Norman Rockwell.
Yes, confirmed Smitty. He was the kid from Lenox who, like most 9-year-old boys in the ’60s, wanted to be an astronaut. Norman Rockwell gave him that opportunity then and, in a way, forever. In the charcoal on paper illustration, a boy in an astronaut costume reclines in liftoff position and watches the TV as the Saturn V rocket blasts off; it was the mission on which Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first set foot on the moon.
A Standout Smile
In 1969, Field Enterprises Educational Corporation, an encyclopedia publisher, commissioned Rockwell to create a drawing entitled “When I Am an Astronaut.”
The publisher gave Rockwell a description of the child he envisioned—a boy around 5 or 6. It just so happened that Smitty’s baseball team had just won the Lenox Little League championship, and the team photo appeared in the Berkshire Eagle. Smitty’s smile stood out to Rockwell, who liked his looks so much he picked him as the model for the illustration.
When Smitty and his mother arrived at Rockwell’s Stockbridge studio, the artist placed Smitty in a reclining chair (“the chair in my own television room,” Rockwell related in correspondence to Field Enterprises). For nearly two and a half hours, Smitty posed with his feet in the air and head turned to a simulated TV screen. He was supposed to keep his head raised off the chair, and it wasn’t easy.
“Norman Rockwell was getting frustrated and kept saying ‘hold your head up,’ but he was very patient with me,” Smitty recalls.
All the while, Rockwell’s photographer, Louie Lamone (who, incidentally, also took the Lenox Little League team photo) was photographing the session. As was his practice, Rockwell used these photos as reference for the illustration. With the check for $40 in his hands, Smitty recalls, “I thought I was the richest kid in Lenox at that time. I wish I still had that check.”
Smitty got to keep the costume and wore it for Halloween that year. Several years ago, he donated it to the Rockwell archives. “I never knew what happened [to the illustration] after that,” Smitty says. The story seemed to end there.
Except that it didn’t.
The Search Continues
Smitty’s mother later saw a ledger of Rockwell’s on display at the Norman Rockwell Museum that indicated the illustration was in the possession of a private citizen. The Norman Rockwell archives can’t reveal the name of a private collector, and Smitty was always curious where the original ended up. He remembered it was designed to be in Volume One of the 1970 Childcraft Encyclopedia, and about six years ago, in a bizarre twist of luck, an old friend who was back home visiting in the Berkshires found the volume in her parents’ house.
At last, Smitty got to see the finished piece. But it wasn’t the same as seeing the original, knowing if it was safe and preserved and appreciated. It seemed like that truly was the end of the road for the boy astronaut.
In the Midwest, though, the story was starting to rumble, ready for another lift off.
In the 1970s, Field Enterprises had given the illustration to an employee upon his retirement. Fast-forward some 40 years. Although the retiree had died, his widow, now well into her 90s, still had the artwork hanging over her sofa. Her son thought it would be prudent to have it appraised, and brought it to MIR Appraisal Service in Chicago. Appraisal value: $150,000.
The Norman Rockwell electronic archives listed Smitty as the model for the work—that’s how MIR tracked him down. Smitty quickly seized the opportunity he’d been waiting for. Having planned a trip to Chicago anyway, he asked MIR if he could come see the piece. When Smitty stepped into MIR’s offices, word that “the boy astronaut” was in the building brought the entire staff out to greet him like a prodigal son. The appraisal service graciously allowed him to deliver the drawing back to the owner’s son in a scene suitable for a Rockwell illustration of its own:
Smitty: “I’m here to return the drawing.”
Owner’s son: “Who are you?”
Smitty: “I’m the subject.”
The man was surprised, of course. But he was also gratified. After all, the illustration had been part of the family’s life for so long.
“When I told him my story he was pleased and felt it helped close the gap in his family’s story, too,” Smitty says.
Now that Smitty has uncovered the entire history of the work, from inception to its present-day owner, is he satisfied?
Well, yes and no.
Smitty’s grandfather, John Pignatelli Sr., was the model for Rockwell’s Space Age Santa, which appeared on the cover of Family Circle magazine in December 1967. It’s another Rockwell piece in the hands of a private collector.
“I would love to see the original Space Age Santa,” Smitty says.
Don’t put it past him.
Alex, What is, “When I am an Astronaut?”
The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, houses the world’s largest and most significant collection of Rockwell’s work and was showcased on the TV game show “Jeopardy!” this year. As part of the museum’s 45th anniversary celebration, the art housed in the museum—including 998 original paintings—were the answers (always in the form of a question) under the category “The Art of Norman Rockwell Museum.”
Stockbridge was the former home of the popular artist and illustrator, famous for his 323 illustrations that graced the covers of the Saturday Evening Post for almost 50 years between 1916 and 1963.
Lisa Green is a freelance writer and editor at ruralintelligence.com. She was commissioned by the Berkshire Visitors Bureau to write this story.