One of Norman Rockwell’s most tender and beloved images, Boy and Girl Gazing at Moon (Puppy Love), also known as the Spooners, has been donated to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The donor is Bill Millis who has owned the oil painting since he bought it at an art gallery in 1975 when he was 26 years old.
“I loved everything Rockwell had painted—for me it’s what America stood for,” recalls Millis from his home in High Point, North Carolina. “Little did I know how popular Mr. Rockwell was, but I’d write him and he’d always write me back. I asked him if he knew whether any originals would ever be for sale, and he told me that there was going to be a showing at the Bernard Dannenberg Galleries in New York City.”
Millis traveled to New York and met with the gallery’s curator, who showed him the works on view. “I was just in awe of the Rockwell paintings, and all of the sudden I saw this one, Puppy Love, and I asked if it was for sale, and he said it was, and I said ‘Oh my goodness!'” Then only 26 years old, Millis asked the curator if he could hold it for him until the following Monday when he could send a check, to which the curator agreed.
Millis wrote to Rockwell to let him know he’d bought the painting and Rockwell so kindly replied: “I’m glad Puppy Love finally has a happy home.” Since he painted it for the cover of the April 24th , 1926, issue of The Saturday Evening Post, it was a homecoming just shy of 50 years in the making. The loving, innocent depiction of young sweethearts entranced by the moon on their way to go fishing with their simple stick pole, worms in a can and an irresistibly cute beagle puppy, continues to charm a new generation in the Internet era as exemplified by its selection as the subject of the February 3rd, 2010, Google Doodle commemorating what would have been Norman Rockwell’s 106th Birthday,
When Millis first bought the painting, the check he wrote the curator was for $27,000 so it was a major purchase at the time, but prices for original works by Norman Rockwell are on a whole different plane these days. He was a prolific artist who was popular throughout his career and extant works aren’t rare. They’re just really expensive now, especially the original oil paintings for his most famous magazine covers. Puppy Love is very much in that category. If it were to be sold on the art market today, it would be valued at $4 million and would probably sell for even more than that. The auction record for a Rockwell painting was set in December of 2013 when Saying Grace went for $46 million.
Millis has kept an eye on the prices and knew he had a winning lottery ticket hanging on his wall. Even though he left the painting to the Norman Rockwell Museum in his will, he was sorely tempted by the sky-high prices to sell Puppy Love and use the proceeds to fund a church-building ministry. Finally he decided in consultation with his family that not only was he not going to sell the painting to the highest bidder, but he wasn’t going to wait until he was dead to donate it.
The museum was ecstatic, of course. It houses the largest collection of original Rockwell art in the world — 998 original paintings and drawings — plus an archive of 100,000 items — working photographs, correspondence, fan mail, contracts — donated by the artist himself. However, it does not have the kind of acquisition budget that can allow them to keep up with the price of original Rockwell art as it rockets into the stratosphere. Saying Grace and the two other Rockwells that sold at that auction (The Gossips for $8.5 million and Walking to Church for $3.2 million) had been on long-term loan at the museum for years before the owners, descendants of The Saturday Evening Post art editor Kenneth J. Stuart, decided to cash in. Unless people give them things, the museum has been decidedly priced out of the market.
Now Bill and his four children Casey, Maggie, Jenny and Jesse, have donated the work “in honor of Norman Rockwell, an incredible American,” the Norman Rockwell Museum has 34 oil paintings of The Saturday Evening Post covers. That’s an impressive 10 percent of the Evening Post originals.