I saw my first Norman Rockwell show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., right before it closed in 2000. The exhibit focused on his series of paintings that were used for the Saturday Evening Post covers, images that captured the ideal America: a moment at the soda fountain shop, a list of tattoos crossed out on a sailor’s arm, children captured in the moment of being kids. I had discovered a new favorite, a master of illustration and narrative meets oil on canvas. Long before seeing the show, I had admired Rockwell’s technique and was captivated by the narratives he inspired through a single image. Was the dialogue that surrounded the image founded in the utopian ideals he was paid to depict?
Fast-forward two decades to present day in which I work as a paintings conservator for the Williamstown Art Conservation Center. WACC is less than an hour away from the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA, which is one of our member institutions. Because of this relationship, I have seen several paintings by Rockwell come to WACC for loan exams or minor conservation. What are the odds that I would have an intimate moment with one of my favorite artists? In 2021, I was preparing Shuffleton’s Barbershop for travel. This painting is one of the most, if not the most, technically brilliant paintings that Norman Rockwell ever produced.
While I considered how I would stabilize the tear and clean the painting, I wondered who was depicted in the painting and how it had been rediscovered after almost one hundred years. Discoveries are often made by chance or due diligence. In this case, it was both. This is our client’s account of his journey, in his own words:
We were married just after college and enjoyed most everything together, from getting to know each other and making new friends to finding jobs and sharing dreams. One exception to our mutual enjoyment was my passion for garage sales. I explained that I was certain that someday I would find a valuable painting or sculpture, but she remained unenthusiastic about my pursuit.
Eventually, we purchased an older home [on the East Coast] in significant disrepair, which was how we could afford it, and found interesting old bottles as we restored walls, but nothing valuable. It took us several years to get to the point where we could clean out and remodel the basement. Scrap lumber and old storm windows were among some of the items piled against one of the basement rock walls. I lifted one storm window from another to find what I had long envisioned. A painting. I knew immediately that this was my garage sale fairytale. The signature at the bottom right confirmed it: Norman Rockwell. A few tears in the canvas, a splintered frame, and the overall poor condition suggested that the painting had been there for more than several years. I ran up the stairs to share it with my wife. She was as happy to hear about my promise that we need not bother with any more garage sales as she was about the prospect of finding a “real” painting.
Our process of verifying its authenticity included a trip to the New York Public Library. I settled into a large quiet room with a stack of books about Norman Rockwell. I paged through the first stack, got another, then finally saw the picture I was looking for. The caption beneath read: whereabouts unknown. “YES!”, I yelled. The other patrons froze at my outburst. I apologized and quietly left the library, excited to share the news with my wife [1]. While the authenticity of the painting had been verified, the mystery continued. Our client contacted the police and sought out the previous owners of the house, but they had passed away.
“ I paged through the first stack, got another, then finally saw the picture I was looking for. The caption beneath read: whereabouts unknown. “YES!”, I yelled. ”
The book our client looked through was Norman Rockwell, A Definitive Catalogue [2]. I found the same catalog at the Clark Institute of Art’s Library to learn how this painting fit into Norman Rockwell’s oeuvre. After starting his career in 1910, Norman Rockwell illustrated 332 covers for various magazines and advertisements [3]. This painting was considered missing, as are most of his early illustrations for various publications. While pilfering through the pages of the “Americana ideal” that Rockwell depicted, I realized that this painting was one of only two that depicted an African American prior to Norman Rockwell’s “Certain Liberty” series. In the case of Foller the Leader, the boy’s back is turned. Almost thirty years later in He Went Thataway (Thrown from a Horse) from the March 17th, 1934 Saturday Evening Post, it is a boy in quarter length profile. This made the painting a rare example of an illustration that depicts an inclusive scene of boys playing together, no matter their race.
I needed to know who the other boys were in the scene. In 1919, Norman Rockwell had just been discharged from the Navy and moved to New Rochelle (Westchester County, NY) and lived in an apartment complex known as Englewood Hall [4]. This was prior to when he used photography to stage his scenes before painting them. For the first two decades of his career, he drew and painted from life. The characters Rockwell used in covers for A Country Gentleman and American Boy were ones that he used over and over again. During this time, a boy named Billy Payne (or Paine) and his friend Eddie Carson lived in the same apartment complex as Norman. Billy Payne was used for the three faces in his first Saturday Evening Post cover: Salutation [also called Boy with Baby Carriage], which would appear on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post on May 20, 1916 (fig.3). In his biography, Norman Rockwell, My Adventures as an Illustrator, Payne is portrayed as one of his favorite models [5]. He is used for fifteen Saturday Evening Post covers in addition to several A Country Gentleman covers and various advertisements during a five-year period (figs. 3-4.).
FIGURE 3. The Saturday Evening Post cover, May 20th, 1916. Printed Publication. Cover Illustration: Norman Rockwell, Boy with Baby Carriage (Salutation), 1916, oil on canvas, 20 ¾” x 18 5/8”, Norman Rockwell Museum Collection.
FIGURE 4. The Saturday Evening Post cover, January 17, 1920. Printed Publication. Cover Illustration: Norman Rockwell, Love Letters, 1920, oil on canvas, whereabouts unknown.
FIGURE 5. A Country Gentleman cover, February 9th, 1918. Printed Publication. Cover Illustration: Norman Rockwell, Cousin Reginald Spells Peloponnesus, oil on board, 30” x 30”, inscribed on back ‘Given to Mr. Read/ 4/29/37’. Old Corner House Collection.

Billy Payne is the unmistakable lad walking the fence in Foller the Leader; while Eddie Carson (figs. 6-7) could be one of the boys to his left or right. Payne was born in 1905 and died following a New Year’s Eve accident on February 26, 1920, just a few months after Foller the Leader was published. In fact, the Love Letters (fig.4) cover was published while he was in the hospital. It was said that he fell out of a window on New Year’s Eve in the apartment complex that both he and Rockwell lived. After being in the hospital for several weeks, he succumbed to his injuries. It is eerie to look at a painting in which the boy that is trying to keep his balance lost his own life a short time later because he slipped.
FIGURE 6. Photograph of Norman Rockwell and Eddie Carson. Accessed September 3rd, 2022.
FIGURE 7. Detail possibly showing Eddie Carson, another model used by Rockwell and friend to Billy Payne. Norman Rockwell, Follow the Leader, 1919, oil on canvas, 30 1/8” x 27”, Private Collection
CIRCULATION OF NORMAN ROCKWELL’S 'ILLUSTRATIONS' How did one of the last paintings in which Rockwell used Billy Payne as a model get lost along with countless other magazine covers? At the time the 1980 catalog was produced, Lauren Norton Mofatt of the Norman Rockwell Museum said, “Determining where these thousands of images had gone was detective work." Daniel Grant continues that "the letters of the many fans who had taken the time to write to NR were read for clues to anyone who might have been the recipient of an original” [6]. Until the art market proved otherwise, most collectors saw these paintings as illustrative prints, and perhaps disposable. Even Rockwell thought they were worth nothing [7]. He would either give these illustrations back to the publisher, Curtis Publishing Company, or at other times he would give them away as gifts to folks, seeing no strong value in them since he had sold the reproduction rights. One example is a painting in which Rockwell once again used Billy Payne. He gave the illustration to a friend named Don Spaulding, to be used for a shirt advertisement and he wrote a message to Don directly on the painting (fig.8). How Foller the Leader ended up into the hands of our client’s former tenant is a mystery, but how it has been recently conserved is not.
FIGURE 8a. Kaynee Blouses and Wash Suits Make You Look All Dressed Up, reproduced advertisement in Boy’s Life, November 1919. Norman Rockwell, Two Boys with Dog, oil on canvas. Private Collection.
“Determining where these thousands of images had gone was detective work"
FIGURE 8b. Detail of inscription: ‘My best wishes/ to/ Don Spaulding/ my friend/ cordially/ Norman Rockwell’.
Norman Rockwell’s illustration is oil (est.) on a commercially primed canvas (figs. 9-10.). It is held in a simple black frame with a bronze-painted slip and is original to the period in which the painting was made, which suggests that the painting was indeed given as a gift. The unlined canvas is attached to a four-member stretcher with rusted tacks. All of the figures are set upon a white background, framed by a black square line. This framed composition is set against the gray background. This is the format that Norman Rockwell and his contemporaries used to submit covers for A Country Gentleman. This design was used to accommodate the magazine logos and text that would appear at the top of the cover.
FIGURE 9. Before Treatment, Norman Rockwell, Foller the Leader, 1919, oil on canvas, 30 1/8” x 27”, Private Collection.
FIGURE 10. Before Treatment, Reverse (verso) of Foller the Leader.

The off-white color of the ground is visible just around Billy Paine’s head, where Rockwell has left a reserve against the gray background. On top of the preparatory layers, Rockwell sketched the outline of his composition. Infrared imaging showed that Norman Rockwell used charcoal or pencil to create a horizontal rule where he would carefully paint his signature (fig. 11). Other drawing marks observed were a number ‘12’ above the wooden fence, loose lines below the fence (fig.11), scribbles to show placement of shadow and form for Billy Payne’s shoe (fig.12), and an outline of one of the boy’s necks (fig.12), and. IR imaging also showed that Rockwell changed where he placed the knee of the boy on the far left: a slight light gray halo above it shows that it was originally planned higher (fig.14). This is also visible in normal light: the brown shadow of the original knee is seen hovering just above the gray edge of the final articulation (fig.15).
FIGURE 14. IR Detail showing a change in the placement of the knee: note the light gray halo above and to the left of the knee cap.
FIGURE 15. The change in the knee placement is slightly visible in regular light: note the transparent brown halo above the knee cap.
The covers for A Country Gentleman were printed with black, white, and red inks; this constrained the pigments used for the illustrations.The palette for Foller the Leader was likewise limited, mostly utilizing reds, browns, grays, and blacks. Blue was used for the coat of the African American boy and was sparingly mixed to create a shade of sage green for his hat. Rockwell used dilute oil washes to create his composition, adding details with a loaded brush to create texture and depth; the brushwork is loose and almost cartoonish.
The painting’s condition was consistent with an object that had been abandoned in the basement of an old estate for numerous years: heavy mold growth on the front and reverse, a significant grime layer that had become embedded in the unvarnished surface, two small tears at the top of the composition, and a large complex tear through the child’s hat on the far right (fig.16). Discolored drip marks were noted at the top and lower edge of the painting. The painting was slack with several distortions (fig.17).
FIGURE 16. Raking light detail of large tear
FIGURE 17. Before Treatment, Raking light, Norman Rockwell, Follow the Leader, 1919, oil on canvas, 30 1/8” x 27”, Private Collection
The initials, “P.W.” are inscribed in the lower left of the painting; these initials were etched into the paint. The initials remind me of something a child does to leave their mark—perhaps it was the work of one of the models, or maybe a member of the household that originally owned the painting. There is an additional inscription on the reverse of the canvas, done with orange chalk. The remnants of this inscription are mostly illegible and read: “T9894/_______/Cover #46”; this presumably relates to the printing process for A Country Gentleman.
Prior to surface cleaning, raised and vulnerable areas of paint were consolidated with both Lascaux® Medium for Conservation and Aquazol® 200 in deionized water; the Lascaux® consolidant was useful for very compromised and powdery areas of paint around the tears. The mold on the reverse of the canvas was neutralized with a UVC light for thirty minutes; this was done with the painting face down. After mold remediation, the unvarnished painting was surfaced cleaned with a Pemulen TR-2 gel, cleared with adjusted water (pH of 7.5) and a 2% (w/v) citrate solution where soiling was the heaviest. During treatment images show the removal of a significant amount of grime (fig. 18); however, both the grime and a large extent of the mold had become permanently imbibed with the paint layer. While the mold was neutralized, permanent round stains were left.
FIGURE 18. During treatment image showing a partial cleaning (right) in comparison to heavy grime (left)
To protect the surface of the painting from imbibed dirt and to create a barrier layer between retouching and the original paint, a 10% (w/v) application of 3:1 Paraloid B-72:Larapol A81 was applied. Now that the painting was in plane, careful filling of the tears was done utilizing raking light (fig.20) to ensure that the fill matched the surrounding texture of the fine canvas weave. The subtle canvas texture was achieved during the retouching process by mixing B72 Retouching Gels® with Gamblin® Colors for Conservation. The gels allow us to recreate texture or impasto; in this case, I discovered it could be used to recreate a canvas weave (fig.21). The remaining retouching was done using Gamblin® Colors for Conservation to reintegrate the tears and staining left by the mold (figs. 22-25).
FIGURE 21. During treatment image showing recreation of canvas texture on a flat fill using Paraloid B72 Retouching gels (circled in red)
The distortions in the paint film were humidified prior to lining the canvas. Localized tear repairs with butt joints were used prior to lining. There was a slight gap in the large complex tear through the hat; a linen insert cut to the size of the area was attached (fig.19). Inserts help support fills during the retouching process; furthermore, the texture of canvas inserts can facilitate mimetic retouching when conservators need to reintegrate damage. The canvas also needed to be lined to support the tears in the canvas and to keep the canvas in plane. Following the localized structural treatments, the painting was lined to a secondary linen support using Beva and re-stretched to its original stretcher.
FIGURE 19. During treatment image showing canvas inserts (beige linen insert) in place of lacunae in the canvas. *This image was taken on an iPhone, resulting in slight color differences.
FIGURE 20. Detail of the tear after filling loss
It was a pleasure to stabilize and conserve one of Norman Rockwell’s lost paintings, Foller the Leader.l. It is the client’s hope that the public will one day be able to see the painting that he had the fortune to find and to whose stewardship he has committed.There is more to be discovered about the painting’s life between leaving Rockwell’s New Rochelle apartment, and the basement where it was finally recovered. Could there be a note in the Curtis Publishing archives that mentions to whom “cover #46” was given? The possibilities seem lost to time but may be waiting to be found.
FIGURE 22. Before Treatment, Norman Rockwell, Foller the Leader, 1919, oil on canvas, 30 1/8” x 27”, Private Collection.
FIGURE 23. After Treatment, Normal Light, Norman Rockwell, Follow the Leader, 1919, oil on canvas, 30 1/8” x 27”, Private Collection
FIGURE 24. Before Treatment, Raking Light, Norman Rockwell, Foller the Leader, 1919, oil on canvas, 30 1/8” x 27”, Private Collection.
FIGURE 25. After Treatment, Raking Light, Norman Rockwell, Follow the Leader, 1919, oil on canvas, 30 1/8” x 27”, Private Collection
Photography Credit | Matthew Hamilton and Maggie Barkovic
[1] This excerpt is taken from our client’s story about his discovery of Foller the Leader.
[2] Moffatt, Laurie Norton et al. Norman Rockwell a Definitive Catalogue. Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge; Distributed by the University Press of New England 1986.
[3] Finch, Christopher and Norman Rockwell. Norman Rockwell: 332 Magazine Covers. Abbeville Press 2013.
[4] Barbara Davis and the New Rochelle Public Library. "Norman Rockwell: The New Rochelle Years". Accessed September 1st, 2022.
[5] Rockwell, Norman et al. My Adventures As an Illustrator: The Definitive Edition. First edition. Definitive ed. Abbeville Press 2019.
[6] Moffatt, Laurie Norton et al. Norman Rockwell a Definitive Catalogue. Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge; Distributed by the University Press of New England 1986. p. xiv.
[7] Grant, Daniel. “Rockwell Gets His Due. NOT JUST AN ILLUSTRATOR”. The Christian Science Monitor. February 14, 1989. Accessed September 1st, 2022.