Mary Doyle Keefe — the model for Norman Rockwell’s iconic 1943 Rosie the Riveter painting — died yesterday at the age of 92 in Simsbury, Connecticut, after a brief unnamed illness, according to her daughter, Mary Ellen. Keefe, who grew up in Arlington, Vermont, posed for the painting when she was just 19 years old and working as a telephone operator. Soon after, it appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on May 29, 1943 — and became a symbol of the countless American women who joined the workforce in order to support their country during World War II.
Rockwell’s painting was based on Michelangelo’s The Prophet Isaiah, from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — with Rosie in place of the prophet (Keefe was, in fact, quite petite; but in the painting is portrayed with a fuller, muscular body in order to convey strength). The painting features Rosie in work overalls, eating a sandwich (most likely from her “Rosie”-labeled lunchbox), with a rivet gun across her lap and her foot crushing a copy of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. The whole thing is, of course, very patriotic (the background is a giant American flag), and “Rosie” is incredibly badass. According to The Guardian, Keefe was paid $10 for the “two mornings she posed for Rockwell and his photographer, Gene Pelham, whose pictures Rockwell used when he painted.”
While Keefe never had to rivet herself, her face soon came to represent the millions of women who had. The painting was even later used again to help aid in a country-wide campaign to sell war bonds. (It should be noted that Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter came a year after the “We Can Do It!” poster by Pittsburgh artist J. Howard Miller, but both were incredibly significant images for women during WWII.)
According to the Associated Press, 24 years after Keefe posed for the painting, Rockwell sent her a letter telling her she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. The painting is now a part of the permanent collection at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas — but at the time, apparently few people cared too much about the whole thing in her hometown.
“People didn’t make a big deal about things back then,” she told the Associated Press in 2002, after the painting was sold for $4.9 million in auction.
According to her family, Keefe spend the last eight years of her life in a retirement community. After her work as a telephone operator (and part-time model, apparently), Keefe went to Temple University for a degree in dental hygiene and then worked as a dental hygienist in Bennington, Vermont. There, she met her husband, Robert Keefe (who passed away in 2003) — and the pair is survived by their four children.
Today, we’re remembering Keefe and her contributions to one of the most iconic representations of Rosie the Riveter of all time. Our hearts are with her children, family, and friends.