Norman Rockwell was one of 20th century America’s most popular painters. He is famous for his paintings of contemporary everyday life that some critics dismiss as overly sentimental. Rockwell is best known for his cover illustrations for Boy’s Life and The Saturday Evening Post magazines, and for the Boy Scout calendars. He was a perfectionist who tried to get the details right. One his paintings was posted on Pigtails here. Another illustration based on a Rockwell painting, but with a new background, was posted here.
Rockwell created many paintings of children. Although his paintings of boys are better known, there are paintings of girls too. The Young Lady with the Shiner is the first of Rockwell’s paintings that will be included in this post. A young girl has been called to the principal’s office for fighting in school. There are three things about this picture that are typical of Rockwell’s art. First is that the girl appears strangely happy even though she has a bruised eye and is about to be punished by the principal. Finding humor and optimism in unlikely situations is a rockwellesque trait. This can be taken as belittling children’s legitimate problems, and therefore has often been criticized. Pip Starr in an earlier post here wrote “Rockwell’s work tends to sacrifice children’s dignity on the altar of humor…” The second thing is that this painting shows the aftermath of the fight instead of the fight itself. Rockwell often chose to paint the prelude or the consequence of an event rather than the main event. Realistic detail is another characteristic of Rockwell. He did not want to give the model a real black eye, and makeup was not, in his judgement, realistic enough. Therefore Rockwell advertised for a model with a black eye, who would model only for the eye. Mary Whalen posed for everything except the black eye of the girl in the painting.
When Mary was called from class to go to the principal’s office, she thought that she was actually in trouble. She started to cry, and the teacher let her twin brother go with her for moral support. When she saw that she was only there to be a model, she was relieved. She had posed for Rockwell before. The artist asked her to smile as if she had just won a fight with her brother. Below are the painting and the photograph of Mary from which Rockwell made the painting.
Mary Whalen also modeled for A Day in the Life of a Girl. This painting was done when Mary was 9 years old, the year before The Young Lady with the Shiner. A Day in the Life of a Girl is actually a series of twenty-two pictures illustrating a typical day in the life of an American girl in 1952. The boy in these pictures was modeled by ten year old Chuck Marsh. The painting and the photographs for the painting are shown below. Note the difference between the painting and the fourth from the last photo. Chuck said later that Mr. Rockwell tried very hard to get him to kiss Mary, but even though he liked Mary a lot, Chuck was too shy. Finally Rockwell gave up and let Chuck pretend to kiss a bronze bust instead of Mary.
I don’t think it would be that hard today to get a ten-year-old boy who is a paid model to kiss a girl. Especially since it’s only an attempted kiss on the forehead. The 1950s were a different time. Rockwell painted cover illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post from 1916 through 1963. People who never lived in rural America at that time may find it hard to believe, but Rockwell’s depictions of rural and small town life in that era are quite realistic. At least they appear realistic to me, and I lived in rural America during the latter part of that period.
Even though children were more shy then, there was young romance. It was just more subdued. The next two paintings are from Rockwell’s Four Seasons Portfolio. They illustrate young love in the summer and fall.
The next paintings illustrate typical feminine characteristics. The girl is happy to dress up in new school clothes, but the boy is not. Girls also like dolls. In the painting Girl With Christmas Doll, two dolls seem to be vying for the girl’s attention. Apparently the girl is holding her old doll, and the Christmas doll is on the floor. The girl has a problem because she loves her old doll and may feel that it would be unfaithful to give her affection to a new doll.
A doll is also featured in The Doctor and the Doll. Rockwell tends to portray people as good and understanding. The girl is intimidated because the doctor will examine her. The kind-hearted physician tries to put the girl at ease by examining her doll first.
The American Way was painted in 1944, during World War II. The title refers to the fact that Americans boasted that it was “the American way” to help people in need, just as the American GI is helping the little girl. Today it is fashionable to emphasize the negative, but Rockwell wanted to inspire people to try to emulate the positive virtues of characters in his paintings. Today many would observe that the little girl may not have been in need of help if the Americans had not made war in her country, but people did not think that way in 1944. Rockwell did not completely ignore the bad parts of American life (See his painting Murder in Mississippi.), but usually he tried to highlight the good. Although Rockwell always tried to get the details right, he made a mistake in The American Way. The soldier wears an ammunition belt for the M1 Garand rifle, but the weapon shown with him is a Thompson submachine gun.
Girl Returning From Camp was the illustration for the August 24th, 1940 cover of The Saturday Evening Post. Magazines were very popular at that time before the internet, and The Saturday Evening Post was one of the most popular magazines in America. Rockwell, and other popular artists created covers for The Saturday Evening Post. Girl Returning From Camp inspired more people to write letters to the magazine than any other cover illustration. It surprises me that it was so controversial. A lot of readers were not sure if the child on the cover was a boy or a girl.
It is obvious to me, from her hairstyle and her skirt, that she is a girl. Boys did not wear long hair in 1940. Why would people think she was a boy? Maybe it is because she seems unhappy to return from camp where she enjoyed the rough adventure even though she had minor injuries on her finger and knee. I grew up on a farm, and my girl cousins and classmates were not afraid of snakes or of getting dirty in the woods. Perhaps residents of more urban areas had a different idea of what little girls should be like. The public reaction to the painting may tell us something about the city dweller’s perception of young girls. You can read about the controversy in an essay here.
A few details are worth noting in Girl Returning From Camp. Rockwell painted the snake and turtle so realistically that I could look up the species of each. I believe the snake is Opheodrys vernalis and the turtle is Chrysemys picta. Both species are indigenous to the eastern United States where the girl presumably went to camp. Note the chips in the blade of the girl’s hatchet. Rockwell undoubtedly knew, from his close association with the Boy Scouts, that a properly used hatchet should not have a chipped blade. The insinuation is that this girl may have been a little wild and reckless at camp.
April Fool 1948 will be the last painting in this post. April Fools covers for The Saturday Evening Post were painted in 1943, 1945 and 1948. Only the 1948 cover features a girl. These covers were intended to be games for the readers of the magazine, who would try to find all of the errors in the picture. I get the feeling that there is more to it than just an April Fools game, but I don’t know how to interpret it. I will point out only one of the many strange things that make this painting so surreal. The girl holding the ugly doll with cloven hooves appears in the painting two more times: in the lower right holding a skunk and in the upper left as a marble bust. You can see a list of fifty-six errors in April Fool 1948 here. If anybody has insight into this painting, please leave a comment.