With this 1943 April Fool cover illustration for the Saturday Evening Post, Norman Rockwell explored the visually incongruous as a way to produce a cover appropriate to celebrate April 1st. The origins of April Fool celebrations date back to 16th century France. Various countries follow diverse traditions: for example in Scotland pranks tend to be focused on a person’s rear end, hence the origin of the “kick me” sign. In America, the media use a variety of methods to address the spirit of the day. Norman Rockwell focused his considerable skill as a painter to take a simple scene of everyday life and twist it so as to challenge the viewer to find all the inconsistencies. In the following years, Rockwell created two more April Fool covers: one in 1945 and the other in 1948.
One aspect of fun in Rockwell’s April Fool image is the use of a visual pun. In this case it is the presentation of milkweed plants growing up out of the lower right edge of the painting with the flower represented by little bottles of milk—hence milkweed. Another bit of fooling around are the anomalies represented in the image: the floral wall paper that changes pattern from one side of the mantel to the other and then on the wall to the left of the mantel the wall paper is represented upside down; geese flying though the parlor room; and in some of the picture frames the subjects extend out beyond their boundaries into the room’s space. In all there are 45 errors or jokes in this illustration. Although from our perspective in 2010, some of these may not strike us as odd, such as the older woman wearing pants, which in itself provides an interesting glimpse of American life in the 1940s.
When the cover was published, the Post also included a list of items near the back of the magazine. In that write-up they acknowledged that most readers might not score 100%: “If you can find twenty-five of them you are shooting par. If you can find thirty-five you’re bogey plus, and if you find more than that, you ought to start discovering new stars with the naked eye.” * In 2009, The Saturday Evening Post produced its own article discussing this cover and provided list indicating each of the errors.** It is interesting to note that in the aftermath of its initial publication, Rockwell commented that he had “. . . had a letter from South American listing one hundred and eighty-four!” *** What is remarkable is that Rockwell painted this densely filled image on a small board 11 inches square, when his typical painting for a cover illustration of The Saturday Evening Post was more likely in the range from 34 x 28 inches to 40 x 38 inches.
While most readers of the Post loved the silliness of Rockwell’s April Fool covers, there were some who objected to this first one. One Post reader from Austin, Texas sent Rockwell an angry letter decrying the illustrator for making fun of an older couple in this image, with “. . . so little respect and veneration for the aged . . . .” **** Most of the rest of the disgruntled comments came from the magazine’s description of the impossibility of constructing a staircase behind a fireplace. Some readers sent comments about how their house was so constructed and one enterprising person sent a photo of President James A. Garfield’s home in Mentor, Ohio which has a staircase that climbs around the sides and back of the front hall fireplace.
* The Saturday Evening Post (April 3, 1943): 99.
***Arthur L. Guptill, Norman Rockwell Illustrator (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1946, third printing 1971): 181.
****Archives, Norman Rockwell Museum, letter from Hardeman R. Davis in Austin Texas to Norman Rockwell, April 15, 1943.
April 1, 2010
By Joyce K. Schiller, Curator, Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies
Norman Rockwell Museum