Norman Rockwell's Ghost
The most artistic collaboration of the entire Apollo program.
- By Pierre Mion
- Air & Space magazine, September 2006
(Page 2 of 2)
One day while I was working on his painting, Rockwell was relaxing on a cushioned bench under the large north-facing window, smoking his usual pipe, and he said, “You know Pierre, I’m getting to like this Rubens idea.”
The three paintings were done by Look’s deadline, and when they were published, the one I had done had not been “touched” or “signed” by Rockwell. The caption read: “Norman Rockwell, assisted on this painting by artist Pierre Mion, shows the departure of Apollo astronauts from the moon….” I could not have asked for more. If Look had given me full credit for the painting, people would have assumed Rockwell and I had worked independently. But because the caption linked the two of us, it gave me a great career boost. And by the way, Rockwell paid me $1,500 for my work instead of the $1,000 he had offered.
On another assignment, we went to Florida to do research and photograph the three Apollo 11 astronauts (Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins) for a large painting Rockwell was going to do for Look to commemorate the first manned lunar landing. NASA had arranged for us to photograph Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins in the manager’s office of the Holiday Inn in Cocoa Beach, where the astronauts were staying. Collins, who walked into the office first and was delighted to meet Rockwell, was extremely humble and most polite. When Armstrong and Aldrin came in a few minutes later, they seemed completely indifferent and unimpressed by meeting Rockwell and were obviously annoyed at this foolishness. Looking at Armstrong’s eyes, I felt as if I was looking at some sort of alien, cold as hell.
Before this trip to Florida, Rockwell thought he might paint the three Apollo 11 astronauts surrounded by many of the world’s explorers, such as Columbus, Magellan, and Admiral Richard E. Byrd. I told him that might be sort of old-fashioned, and suggested he show the three astronauts flanked by numerous NASA and industry people who had helped make the first manned moon landing possible. He liked the idea, and this is what he eventually painted. He also had the Holiday Inn manager photographed, and, believe it or not, put him in the final painting in the lower righthand corner, portraying him as NASA staff. Rockwell told me the reason he depicted all of the heads as profiles was because it took much less time to paint only half of a face. I assisted him back at his studio by painting the background, the Apollo assembly building and launch tower, and the astronauts’ helmets and suit valves. The Look article illustrated with this painting, as well as three others by me, wasn’t published until right after the Apollo 11 crew’s return to Earth on July 24, 1969. (No one was certain the mission would succeed; had it failed, there obviously would have been no congratulatory article.)
Rockwell and I worked together on other projects through the years and continued our friendship until his death in 1978. At one time, while visiting Washington, D.C., to promote a book of his work, he and his wife Molly went with me to an airport in Warrenton, Virginia, where I took each for a flight in a sailplane. I must say Molly had a better time than Norman. While in the air, he kept repeating, “As long as I know Pierre is at the controls, everything will be all right.” It dawned on me that I had the safety of this great artist in my hands.