Happy April 1!
Checkers (aka April Fool, 1943) was Norman Rockwell’s first April Fools’ cover — an older couple in a world filled with silly, nonsensical errors. The Saturday Evening Post published it on April 3, 1943. It was my favorite painting of Pop’s when I was growing up. It is such fun to puzzle out. But not only that. My grandfather did something very original — an April Fools’ cover with all the fun mistakes to find, and he painted it with no less mastery than any other painting. I can’t think of another painting like it. He didn’t give it short shrift because it was a “joke.” That’s what makes it particularly special. He creates a whole new world in this painting, one I think many of us would welcome. Everything is turned upside down — a deer instead of a dog underneath the chair, the cane is a hoe, a carved rat’s head on the mantel, a skunk instead of a cat on the lap of the woman, time has even been altered — a fantastical place to escape to.
It’s no surprise that Pop would choose to create this fun painting after the tedious toil of almost seven months to complete the Four Freedoms. I mentioned this in my recent post on Freedom of Speech. He focused so diligently on getting everything right in the Four Freedoms that his impulse was to balance the serious work with the hilarity of an April Fools’ cover. It’s a perfect example of how my grandfather dealt with difficulties. Humor and fun. And always with a good joke — Pop used to say, “He who laughs last lays the golden egg!”
Unfortunately, though, a month later on May 15, my grandfather’s studio burned down. In it were his favorite paintings that he’d been carefully collecting through the years: his large collection of costumes, all the souvenirs and mementos from his travels around the world, his favorite brushes, art books (“all my brains,” he told his friend Clyde Forsythe in a letter describing the loss of the books). Almost his whole world. He had absentmindedly left his pipe near the window seat in his studio. My father, Thomas, was the first to see the fire. He was awakened by the brilliant orange light reflected in his bedroom and the thunder of the studio engulfed in flames. Frightened, Dad ran downstairs and woke the housekeeper and her husband. The telephone wires were burned out so Pop had to get the car and drive to the neighbors’, the Squires, up the one lane dirt road to call the Fire Department.
Almost immediately after the fire, Pop and my grandmother Mary decided to move. They felt the house was too isolated — the nearest neighbors were a mile away. But this is how NR dealt with adverse circumstances — he faced them squarely. I think emotionally it was easier for him to begin all over again, start anew. This is the feeling in many of his paintings — take a difficult situation and find a way, through humor and grace, to move through it and past it.
Note NR’s humorous, practically celebratory, page of drawings about the fire — My Studio Burns Down. Its reads almost like a cartoon. My grandfather worked through his darkest moments in his art. He does end the series of drawings with a poignant moment: the family, all alone, looking at the smoldering ruins in the early morning. The scale of the family compared to the scale of the studio says it all. They are very small in the face of the ruins before them.
P.S. Our hearts are with all the families and loved ones of those lost in the tragedy of the Germanwings Flight 9525. In the face of deep despair all we can do is come together as one and mourn and comfort each other. Infinite blessings to those souls that departed too soon.