Rosie the Riveter and Mary Doyle

Art on Sunday #25

Rosie the Riveter, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, May 19, 2012

Rosie the Riveter, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art,
Bentonville, Arkansas, May 19, 2012

Mary Doyle (later Keefe) was a 19-year-old telephone operator – operated out of her mother’s home – in Arlington, Vermont, when she posed for neighbor Norman Rockwell’s iconic “Rosie the Riveter” painting that was published on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post on May 29, 1943 and came to symbolize the millions of American women who worked on the home front in the dark days of World War II.  The painting was subsequently loaned to the U.S. Treasury Department for the duration of the war for use in war bond drives.

While Doyle was a petite 110-pound woman, Rockwell wanted Rosie to show strength and based the pose of Rosie on Michelangelo’s 1509 Sistine Chapel ceiling image of the prophet Isaiah, giving her broad shoulders, and large arms and hands. Twenty-four years after she posed for the painting, Rockwell wrote to her apologizing for the large body he gave her in the painting.1

Mary Doyle Keefe and Norman RockwellDoyle posed two mornings for Rockwell and his photographer, Gene Pelham, as Rockwell preferred to work from still images rather than live models. She was paid $5 for each sitting. “You sit there and he takes all these pictures,” she told the Associated Press in 2002. “They called me again to come back because he wanted me in a blue shirt and asked if I could wear penny loafers.” Doyle was a redhead, like the Rosie Rockwell painted and who appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post on Memorial Day weekend, 1943.

In the painting, above her head a halo, Rosie is holding a ham sandwich in her left hand, her feet are resting on a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and her blue overalls are adorned with badges and buttons: a Red Cross blood donor button, a white “V for Victory” button, a Blue Star Mothers pin, an Army-Navy E Service production award pin, two bronze civilian service awards, and her personal identity badge. In a pocket of her overalls is a lace-fringed handkerchief and a white-trimmed gold compact. In an interview, Doyle explained that she was actually holding a sandwich while posing for the painting, that the rivet-gun she was holding was fake,  she never saw a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and she did have a white handkerchief in her pocket like the picture depicts.

“Except for the red hair I had at the time, and my face, the rest I don’t think is me at all,” Mrs. Keefe said in a 2002 interview for the Norman Rockwell Museum.2

The painting3 is part of the permanent collection4 at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Mary Doyle graduated with a degree in dental hygiene from Temple University.  She married Robert J. Keefe in 1949. Born on July 30, 1922 in Bennington, Vermont, Mary Doyle Keefe died in Connecticut on April 21, 2015, at the age of 92.

Bennington Banner (Vermont) May 1943

Painting of Rosie, a Riveter, Starts Tempest in Teapot4

Norman Rockwell of Arlington, veteran Saturday Evening Post cover artist, has another cover in this week’s issue and it hits the rivet right on the head. There’s nothing new in that, since all his covers have been knockouts. But this one came very near causing the Curtis Publishing Company, a lot of trouble.

The cover, posed for by Miss Mary Doyle, Arlington’s attractive telephone operator, shows a husky gal, perched on a timber with a riveting gun lying on her lap, one arm over her lunch box, and a ham sandwich (1) point per pound held in a strictly feminine manner between carmine-tipped fingers.

Beneath one moccasined foot is a smudged copy of “Mein Kampf”, pagan bible of the Hitler regime. Across her bosom is a row of buttons, including a service button, a red cross emblem, a “V” button, a “E” insignia, and a few others.

Feminine Touch

From the pocket of her soiled blue dungarees protrudes a lace-edged handkerchief, and a gold trimmed white compact, in pleasing contrast to the double—buckle leather wrist strap.

Lettered in white paint across the top of her lunch box is the name “ROSIE”, and thereby hangs a tale.

News dealers from coast to coast, including Evans of Main street, received “blow-ups” of the Rockwell cover last week. A “blowup” is an enlargement in colors of a cover picture. It is tacked up to tip off news stand customers of what to expect in the coming Post issue. But this one had a title over it, to wit: “Rosie the Riveter.”

This, it is said, is the name of a new and popular war song. The name “Rosie” on the lunch box isn’t copy-righted, but presumably the title of the song is.

Hurry Call

A couple of days ago Evans and a hundred thousand other news dealers received urgent instructions from the Curtis Publishing Co. to ditch the “blow-up”, and to sign a solemn statement certifying that they had done so, presumably to indicate the good faith of the company and adduce proof that there had been no intention on their part to plaglarize. The Curtis Co. is too smart for that, too long established and certainly knows better, but someone in their promotion department, it is to be supposed, didn’t know about “Rosie.”

Norman Rockwell, when interviewed by The Banner this noon said that “this is the first I’ve heard of it.” Of course he had nothing to do with the promotion anyway, and the use of the word Rosie was quite safe.

She’s Really Beautiful

“It’s Miss Doyle, our telephone operator, who should sue me,” laughed Rockwell, or at least grinned, judging from the sound of his voice over the telephone. “She is really a beautiful girl, but since I wanted to portray a girl of husky proportions, I had to distort the picture.

“I made a mistake in detail that people will be calling me down for,” he concluded. “The cover shows ‘Rosie’ with goggles and an isinglass protective shield. I don’t think riveters use both. It was silly of me.”

The reporter hadn’t noticed that slip, but a few thousand riveters who read the Post regularly undoubtedly will.


  1. “He called me one day and he said, ‘Mary, I apologize, but I made you very large,’ ” Mrs. Keefe recalled before the Sotheby’s sale. “Of course, as a young girl, I said, ‘Oh, that’s all right.’ But when I saw it, that was a different story.”

    She was mollified a bit in 1967, however, when she received a letter from Rockwell. “The kidding you took was all my fault,” he wrote, “because I really thought you were the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.”  – Mary Keefe Obit, New York Times.

  2. Mary Keefe, Model for Rockwell’s ‘Rosie the Riveter,’ Dies at 92 – obit, New York Times, April 24, 2015
  3. The painting was eventually donated to the Treasury Department’s War Loan Drive, which raffled it off. The winner was identified as Mrs. P. R. Eichenberg of Mount Lebanon, Pa. Art dealers said it was later owned by Chicago Pneumatic and Dresser Industries, makers of rivet guns and drills, and S. B. Lewis, a New York arbitrageur, who auctioned it off at Sotheby’s to the Elliott Yeary Gallery of Aspen, Colo., in 2002 for $4.9 million, which was believed to be the highest price fetched for a Rockwell at public auction at that time. – Mary Keefe Obit, New York Times.
  4. Title: Rosie the Riveter
  5. Artist: Norman Rockwell (1894 – 1978)
    Date: 1943
    Dimensions: 52 x 40 in. (132.1 x 101.6 cm)
    Framed: 62 in. × 50 in. × 3 1/4 in.
    Medium: Oil on canvas
    Credit Line: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, (Accession Number) 2007.178

    Label Text:

    Rosie the Riveter stands as a powerful reminder of American women’s critical contributions to victory during World War II. Posed before a waving American flag and dressed in red, white, and blue, Rosie proudly displays a series of patriotic badges across the bib of her overalls. A tattered copy of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf lies underfoot.

    The image emblazoned the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on May 29, 1943, in the midst of the wartime labor boom which helped to ease unemployment experienced during the Great Depression. Closer examination reveals the art historical inspiration for Norman Rockwell’s statuesque figure: Michelangelo’s depiction of the prophet Isaiah on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

  6. Transcribed by Penny Colman, author of Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II in a blog post, Rosie the Riveter and Mary Doyle Keefe
american history, art, art on sunday, war, ww2

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