Over the course of his nearly 75 year career, Norman Rockwell continually revealed his unparalleled ability to express the spirit of American history and culture through the compelling images he created for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. Through these covers, of which he ultimately executed over 300, Rockwell contributed to the national conversation by visually translating significant moments in American culture and politics with his classic warmth, wit and insight. Which One? stands among the most explicitly topical works Rockwell painted for the publication. Taking the 1944 United States presidential election as its subject, it demonstrates the prodigious artistic talent and unyielding creativity that allowed Rockwell to make current events accessible to his enormous audience of Post readers, a remarkable skill that has made him one of the most beloved painters of the 20th century.
Created during this pivotal moment in American history and the most significant period in Rockwell’s career, Which One? expertly captures the intricacies of the 1944 election, the closest presidential contest in over a decade. Here he depicts a resident of Cedar Rapids, Iowa standing in a voting booth, poised to cast his vote for one of the two candidates. Indicated by the array of political pamphlets that line his pocket and the morning newspaper he holds, the voter has clearly attempted to educate himself on his choice, yet the bemused expression on his face reveals that he remains stymied by the task and he continues to weigh his options on a rainy November day.
The 1944 election occurred in the midst of the Second World War, setting the Democratic incumbent president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, against Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican governor of New York. Though the war had turned in favor of the United States by late 1944, Roosevelt faced considerable hostility from those who disapproved of his domestic and foreign policies. Dewey was the strongest challenger the President had faced since first winning the office in 1932. Roosevelt’s election to four consecutive terms as President was unprecedented in American history, and while he remained popular, the clear decline in his physical appearance and reports of secret health problems plagued his bid for reelection. Roosevelt’s health had in fact been worsening since 1940. He campaigned vigorously in order to dispel the rumors and was successfully reelected for a fourth time, though with a lower percentage of both the electoral vote and the popular vote than he had received previously. Roosevelt died only a few months into his fourth term in April 1945, leaving his new Vice President, Harry Truman, to assume the presidency and bring the war to a successful conclusion. Two years later, Congress passed the Twenty-second Amendment to the Constitution, which set a two-term limit on the office in perpetuity.
By the year he painted Which One?, Rockwell had achieved a pervasive level of popularity through his Post covers, which reached thousands of American households on a weekly basis. He painted almost 70 cover images for the publication during the 1940s, many of which are now some the best-known works in his oeuvre. Thematically, Rockwell sought to portray imagery that was more explicitly American in character during this period. Particularly after the onset of the war, he imbued his work with a new seriousness, and began to address the most critical issues of the day. Rockwell tackled subjects such as patriotism, racism and national security, while still maintaining his persistently nostalgic and optimistic perspective. In 1943, the artist executed his Four Freedoms series, a group of paintings that illustrate the four freedoms that President Roosevelt articulated were essential to human rights in his 1941 State of the Union address: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear and freedom from want. Though Rockwell had already painted on the subject of World War II, most famously through his Willie Gillis series, he now saw an opportunity, writes Virginia M. Mecklenburg, “to do something more, to somehow translate the sweeping abstractions of the Four Freedoms into realities that spoke directly to the lives of ordinary Americans” (Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, Washington, D.C., 2010, p. 105). The Four Freedoms appeared in The Saturday Evening Post over the course of four weeks in 1943 and were widely produced and distributed as posters, contributing to the iconic status the images have today.
Like the Four Freedoms series, Which One? is painted with an acute and remarkable attention to naturalistic detail. The variety of textures Rockwell includes and juxtaposes—masterfully rendered minutiae such as the fine print of the newspaper and the wrinkles in the figure’s skin—create a rich and animated surface that also contributes to the strong sense of authenticity the painting evokes. Yet the apparent veracity of Which One? belies the careful planning with which Rockwell executed this and all of his most sophisticated compositions. The strong horizontality of the background is counteracted by the vertical elements of the curtains that frame the voting booth and of the figure himself, allowing the painting to achieve a sense of balance. The strategically placed vibrant red highlights engage and direct the viewer’s eye through the composition and enhance the sense of depth within the two-dimensional picture plane. Ultimately, the strong draftsmanship and compositional design displayed in Which One? not only confirm Rockwell’s great technical abilities, but also reinforce his true gift for storytelling as we see him encapsulate the subtle details of a complex narrative into a single, compelling image.
Rockwell engaged with political subject matter from the earliest years of his career, beginning with Political Argument, which was featured on the cover of The Post on October 9, 1920. The specific theme of the democratic process likely appealed to Rockwell because the act of voting was a shared American experience, a ritual in which nearly every Post reader could participate. Throughout his body of work, Rockwell sought to be as inclusive as possible in order to connect with the widest audience. No matter how openly he spoke to the political or social issues of the day, his imagery never revealed even a degree of partisanship and instead often sought to be humorous or comforting rather than didactic or moralizing. Rockwell knew the impact his work could have: before television became a pervasive presence in the country’s homes, Americans primarily obtained the news from newspapers and periodicals like The Post. Thus, the artists who illustrated these sources exercised a great deal of influence on popular reception and public opinion. In Which One?, Rockwell alludes to the power of print media in America at the time with his inclusion of the Cedar Rapids Gazette held by the perplexed voter.
Though Rockwell renders this protagonist with near-photographic realism, he does not intend the voter to represent a specific person. Instead, he is meant to embody every American, any citizen who has ever participated in the electoral process or indeed, more broadly, struggled to make a difficult decision. “[Rockwell’s] subject was average America,” explains Thomas S. Buechner. “He painted it with such benevolent affection for so many years that a truly remarkable history of our century has been compiled. Millions of people have been moved by his picture stories about pride in country, history, and heritage, about reverence loyalty, and compassion. The virtues that he admires have been very popular, and because he illustrates them using familiar people in familiar settings with wonderful accuracy, he continues to grow as new generations live through the same quintessentially American types of experiences that he so faithfully depicted in his art” (Norman Rockwell: A Sixty Year Retrospective, New York, 1972, p. 13).
Rockwell’s portrayal of the everyday citizen casting his vote for the next President of the United States in Which One suggests his assertion of a fifth freedom: freedom of choice, and our right to help direct the country’s future with our participation. Just as he accomplishes in the Four Freedoms series and all of his most successful works, Rockwell takes the most complex issues of the day and makes them intelligible to the average American citizen. Rockwell’s engagement with these topics and the unique manner in which he interprets them situates him within a great tradition of American painters who have used their art to communicate the intricacies of the most significant events in our country’s cultural and political history, artists like Frederic Edwin Church and Martin Johnson Heade who used landscape painting to express the uncertainty permeating the country in the years before the outbreak of the Civil War. What distinguishes Rockwell is how his message continues to endure: while the artist’s imagery undoubtedly evolved over time to engage with changing cultural norms and social mores, it consistently evokes a sense of timeless familiarity. The figures he rendered and the situations he conjured remain just as relevant and relatable today, contributing to his lasting reputation as an astute chronicler of the American experience.