Rockwell Files: The Facts of Life

Right or wrong, sometimes a father feels he must raise difficult matters with a child, though both parties would be more comfortable if they were left unsaid.

Father telling his son the birds and the bees
(Norman Rockwell / SEPS)

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We remember Rockwell for warm-hearted depictions of everyday life, but in Facts of Life, his July 14, 1951, cover, he captured a painful moment that his audience could certainly relate to: an earnest and obviously uncomfortable dad attempting to explain the birds and bees to a son who has, judging from his expression, already heard more than enough.

The power of Rockwell’s paintings often grows out of the artist’s uncanny ability to capture emotions. Notice how the boy’s clenched fists at the sides of his face evoke a fighter fending off blows. Meanwhile, as a counterpoint, kittens play innocently while their mama snoozes on the floor — the perfect analogue for Dad’s message.

Father telling his son the birds and the bees
(Norman Rockwell / SEPS)

Son Peter Rockwell said he never had “the talk” with his father, though they had a close relationship. The only times his famous dad was unapproachable was when Norman was having trouble conceptualizing a cover. The worst it ever got, says Peter, was during the 11 months Rockwell took to complete this image of tangible embarrassment.

This article is featured in the May/June 2022 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Norman Rockwell / © SEPS

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  1. It was interesting to learn that Rockwell’s son only found him unapproachable was when he was conceptualizing a cover, with this one taking nearly a year. He probably worked on it intermittently while doing easier Post covers that appeared during that time otherwise. Perhaps Rockwell never had such a talk with his son for fears of the very awkwardness and embarrassment expressed here, which is immense.

    I wonder how many awkward moments this cover created (or prevented) after it arrived in millions of mailboxes back in 1951. I suspect more of the latter. Certainly not as much as his ’56 Christmas cover of the boy discovering dad’s Santa suit in the bottom drawer. I know from features here it was controversial for having ruined the illusion of Santa for quite a few children back then.

    The thing I wonder today is realistically, why would this boy’s father have even HAD the outfit in the first place? No one ever asks about that because they never thought to because the child’s full-on shock was/is such a complete distraction of focus, it takes away any other questions. The magazine received a lot of angry letters on that cover. The ‘Facts of Life’ here? Just guessing, but I suspect probably fewer than normal. A few thank you letters perhaps from some dads where the cover made the decision for them not to even bother!


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