In the final months of World War II, Norman Rockwell delivered The Homecoming, his highly resonant cover illustration for the May 26, 1945 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, published just eighteen days after the surrender of Germany. The timely and emotional image tells the story of a young soldier arriving home, where family, neighbors and even a love interest rush to greet him with ecstatic joy. With his back to the viewer, the message focuses less on the war’s effect on the Marine and more about the family’s jubilation around their loved one’s safe return. Deborah Solomon writes, “In the center of the composition, a redheaded grandmother opens her arms as if to welcome not just her boy, but all the sons who served in the war. America welcomes you home, she seems to be saying.” (American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, New York, 2013, p. 233) Complete with Blue Star Flags hanging in the windows, each star representing a family member serving in the war, the message of hope and reunion in The Homecoming inspired the U.S. Treasury to reproduce the image as a promotion for the final War Loan Drive with the slogan, “Hasten the Homecoming…Buy Victory Bonds.” Over 300,000 copies were printed.
In the months following the war’s end, The Saturday Evening Post commissioned “homecoming covers” by artists, such as Mead Schaeffer and Constantin Alajalov, but Rockwell’s covers dominated in popularity, power and sentiment. “The homecoming images are among the most emotionally complex paintings of Rockwell’s career; each actor, from those in starring roles to the ‘extras’ on the sidelines, is key to understanding the complicated expectations and preconceptions faced by returning servicemen.” (V.M. Mecklenburg, Norman Rockwell: From the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, New York, 2010, p. 120) As warmly as the family receives their soldier, the public received The Homecoming at the time of its debut. It was regarded as “Rockwell’s most effective homecoming cover” (J. Cohn, Covers of the Saturday Evening Post, New York, 1995, p. 175) and one of the best covers the artist ever produced by the Post editor Ben Hibbs, who said, “The homecoming cover now hangs above my desk in my study at home and it has been borrowed many times for art exhibits, including at least one exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I regard it as the finest cover Norman has done; in fact, I have always felt that it is the greatest magazine cover ever published.” (as quoted in N. Rockwell, My Adventures as an Illustrator, New York, 1988, p. 328)
Indeed, World War II inspired some of Rockwell’s strongest work, leading to well over a dozen war-related Post covers as well as commissions for government promotional material. This period is considered the beginning of his fully naturalistic, mature phase, and his creativity blossomed as he infused the severity of wartime subjects with the warm and humorous images so characteristic of his career. Christopher Finch writes, “World War II played a very strange role in Rockwell’s career. Rockwell is far from being a warlike person; he is, on the contrary, a gentleman in the literal sense of the word. Yet the war brought out the best in him and turned him toward the naturalistic portrait of home-town America which he put to good use in the decades that followed. His immediate contribution to the war effort on the home front was quite considerable. What is most important about this period, in relation to his career as an illustrator, is the fact that he was given an opportunity to prove to himself and others that he was capable of dealing with serious subjects without abandoning the human touch which has always been his trademark.” (Norman Rockwell’s America, New York, 1975, p. 200)
As American’s sons and daughters deployed for battle, the nation yearned for the protection and preservation of the nuclear family. Rockwell’s choice to incorporate themes of home and humanity into his war-linked images propelled their popularity over other Post artists, like Schaeffer, who chose to portray the reality of life on the front lines. Finch writes, “He does not give us the generals’ view of the war; neither does he give us the politicians’. Rather he shows us how the war affects the man in the street – the man who must contribute to the solutions without having contributed to the causes.” (Norman Rockwell’s America, pp. 195-96) For example, the artist modeled his profound Four Freedoms series on the everyday activity he observed in his Arlington, Vermont hometown, where a conventional town meeting became the foundation for the iconic Freedom of Speech (1943, Norman Rockwell Museum). For his Willie Gillis series, it was Rockwell’s creative instinct to choose a model who appeared unfit for military duty. Although Willie often appears in uniform, he is never explicitly shown in the line of duty and generally inspires sympathy and laughter through his ordinary, if not innocent appearance. As Karal Ann Marling notes, “Throughout World War II… Rockwell's constant theme was home—and the ties between men in battle and the loved ones who awaited their return.” (K.A. Marling, Norman Rockwell, New York, 1997, p. 93). In The Homecoming, though the soldier has presumably seen unspeakable violence and destruction in the line of duty, Rockwell spares the audience the painful memory of war in favor of the relief of the soldier’s safe return, as he so characteristically “stressed the positive over the negative, our potential over our problems” in his portrayals of American life. (F. Baur, Norman Rockwell’s Faith of America, New York, 1980, p. 129)
Rockwell’s commitment to his unique perspective on the war resulted in more detailed work, as he developed sentimental narratives around his subjects. For The Homecoming, the artist explored the city of Troy, New York, for two days before choosing the perfect location to paint. Here, the artist discovered a diversity of people living amongst each other, an ideal representation of America as a whole. Deborah Solomon writes, “A workman fixing a shingle on the roof turns around, a married couple appears in a door frame, faces gaze down from second-story windows. Schoolboys climbing a tree freeze. They are part of the same circle, one that implicitly includes not only the folks looking at the soldier but a wider circle comprised of Post readers looking at the folks looking on the cover.” (American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, p. 233)
Some of Rockwell’s favorite models posed as the main characters for The Homecoming, including members of the Edgerton, Cross, McKee and Hoyt families, with whom the Rockwells were dear friends and neighbors in Arlington. The Edgerton family dog Spot rushes towards the soldier while Ardis Edgerton poses as the beaming young girl in the blue dress; little Yvonne Cross peers out from behind Ardis, while Yvonne’s brother John Cross Jr. poses as the soldier, and their father John Cross Sr. smiles from the roof; a bashful Irene Hoyt hides at the left of the building; Billie Brown runs down the stairs after Spot. The mother/grandmother figure with outstretched arms is Jenny McKee, who modeled for two of Rockwell’s well-known Post covers, The Charwomen of 1946 and The Gossips of 1948. The Rockwell family cook Elizabeth LaBombard and her husband Albert peek out from the doorway on the right. As in many of his best works, even the artist makes a cameo as the awe-struck man holding a pipe.
The sense of community between Rockwell’s models translated into the expressions of wonder and cheer worn by the twenty figures and, of course, the darling pup in The Homecoming. The spirit of the painting received a glowing review during its exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1951, as author Dorothy Canfield Fisher compared Rockwell’s work to that of important fifteenth-century Dutch master Hieronymus Bosch: “The warmly colored Return of the Soldier [The Homecoming] is as full of detail as any Bosch or Breughel, but it is not cluttered, it has unity. Its composition is brought into orderly form by the converging rays of love which stream out from its every corner toward a common center, the endearingly awkward back of the young soldier. Everyone in the picture loves him. And because of this, they and the pictures are brought into one whole, are caught up into that heaven of our times, the heaven which is believed in and longed for by humanity – love for one another.” (The 75th Anniversary Exhibition of Painting & Sculpture by 75 Artists, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1951, p. 63)
Even when his subject matter and themes are slanted toward the more serious, Rockwell’s portraits of America are both a faithful historical record of, and a tender tribute to, the unique and enduring American spirit. “His subject was average America. 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 described the American Dream.” (T.S. Buechner, Norman Rockwell: A Sixty Year Retrospective, New York, 1972, p. 13) The Homecoming marked not only the peak of Rockwell’s war-period work, but signaled an end to the nationwide uncertainty and pain brought by the war. As Rockwell himself writes of the work, “…the soldier surprising his family and friends in the back yard of his tenement home. His mother is holding out her arms to him, his little brother is running to meet him, people are looking out of windows, boys in trees are shouting, his girl is standing quietly to one side. The whole neighborhood is surprised and happy. He has come back. The war is over.” (My Adventures as an Illustrator, New York, 1988, p. 333)
'Norman/Rockwell' (lower right)
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978)
New York, Rockefeller Center, International Galleries, Society of Illustrators, May 3-20, 1946.
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The 75th Anniversary Exhibition of Painting & Sculpture by 75 Artists Associated with the Art Students League of New York, March 16-April 29, 1951, p. 64, illustrated (as The Soldier's Return).
Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Fort Lauderdale Museum of the Arts; Brooklyn, New York, The Brooklyn Museum; Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art; San Antonio, Texas, Marion Koogler McNay Art Institute; San Francisco, California, M.H. De Young Memorial Museum; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Oklahoma Art Center; Indianapolis, Indiana, Indianapolis Museum of Art; Omaha, Nebraska, Joslyn Art Museum; Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Norman Rockwell: A Sixty Year Retrospective, February 11, 1972-April 15, 1973, pp. 84, 153, illustrated (as Homecoming G.I.).
The Saturday Evening Post, May 26, 1945, cover illustration.
A.L. Guptill, Norman Rockwell: Illustrator, New York, 1946, pp. xviii, 153, 188-89, 205, illustrated (as Home-Coming Soldier).
N. Rockwell, The Norman Rockwell Album, Garden City, New York, 1961, p. 2, illustrated (as Homecoming Soldier).
T. Buechner, Norman Rockwell: Artist & Illustrator, New York, 1970, n.p., pl. 410, 417, illustrated.
C. Finch, Norman Rockwell’s America, New York, 1975, pp. 195-97, fig. 244, illustrated (as Homecoming GI).
N. Rockwell, Rockwell on Rockwell: How I Make a Picture, New York, 1979, pp. 80-81, illustrated.
F. Bauer, Norman Rockwell’s Faith of America, New York, 1980, pp. 129-30, 132, illustrated (as Homecoming GI).
S.E. Meyer, Norman Rockwell’s People, New York, 1981, pp. 114-15, 220, illustrated (as Soldier’s Homecoming).
L.N. Moffatt, Norman Rockwell: A Definitive Catalogue, vol. I, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, 1986, pp. 160-61, no. C418, illustrated.
J. Cohn, Covers of the Saturday Evening Post, New York, 1998, p. 199, illustrated.
M.H. Hennessey, A. Knutson, Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, exhibition catalogue, Atlanta, Georgia, 1999, pp. 133-34, 197, illustrated.
L. Claridge, Norman Rockwell: A Life, New York, 2003, p. 332.
A. Nemerov, "Coming Home in 1945: Reading Robert Frost and Norman Rockwell," American Art Journal, vol. 18, no. 2, Summer 2004, pp. 58, 62-64, fig. 3, frontispiece illustration (as Homecoming GI).
V. Mecklenberg, Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C., 2010, pp. 118-20, fig. 61, illustrated.
D. Solomon, American Mirror: The Life and Art of Normal Rockwell, New York, 2013, pp. 233-35, 241, illustrated (as Homecoming G.I.).
C. Finch, Norman Rockwell: 332 Magazine Covers, New York, 2013, pp. 254, 385, illustrated (as Homecoming G.I.).
Ben Hibbs, gift from the above, by 1951.
Edith K. Hibbs, wife of the above, by descent, 1975.
American Illustrators Gallery, New York.
Acquired by the present owner from the above, 2005.