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Norman Rockwell’s The Young Lady with the Shiner
By Erin Monroe, Krieble Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture
As a boy, Norman Rockwell was an avid reader which instilled in him a belief in the power of storytelling. He cited classic Charles Dickens novels such as Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, and A Tale of Two Cities, as sources of early inspiration. Whereas Dickens crafted using words, Rockwell’s detailed, realistic paintings told visual stories. Rockwell later proclaimed that for him, in painting, “The story is the first and the last thing.”
Rockwell was best known for his covers of The Saturday Evening Post, now considered to be hallmarks of American life. The Wadsworth’s The Young Lady with the Shiner, appeared on the May 23, 1953 issue. During Rockwell’s 47-year tenure at ThePost, he produced 322 original covers. Employing talented artists helped elevate the magazine’s popularity, boosting its subscription base to 6,900,000 nationwide by 1960.
The appeal of Norman Rockwell paintings often lies in their relatability. His protagonists are frequently ordinary people dealing with small frustrations. In The Young Lady with the Shiner, for example, the adventures of elementary school take center stage.
Sporting a black eye and bandaged knee, a student waits outside the Principal’s office. Her braids and clothes are in disarray—note the untied shoelaces—and yet she wears a satisfied expression. The apparent victor of the tussle, she is relishing in her triumph with little thought given to whatever consequences are coming her way.
While many of Rockwell’s pictures reflected the era’s gender stereotypes—boys playing baseball, girls and their dolls, etc.—this particular painting challenges those notions by depicting female strength and defiance. Seen within the context of the times, scholars have compared Rockwell’s young girl to Rosie the Riveter, the propaganda image created by a Pittsburgh artist in 1942 to promote women in the workforce. Rockwell created a variation of the hardworking Rosie for the Memorial Day issue of the Saturday Evening Post in 1943. Both Rosie and our young lady reflect the theme of female empowerment which continues to resonate in today’s culture.
Rockwell’s idealized depictions of small-town American life were not far removed from the tight-knit community of Arlington, Vermont, where he lived at the time he painted The Young Lady with the Shiner. He often used neighborhood children and friends as his models. For the creation of the Wadsworth’s painting, Rockwell asked ten-year old Mary Whalen to sit for several sessions.
Rockwell toiled over his compositions. He posed Mary in different settings making numerous reference photographs and sketches before completing a large, finished oil painting for each cover design. Once he turned to the canvas to begin The Young Lady with A Shiner, Rockwell struggled with the rendering of the black eye, initially brushing charcoal over Mary’s eye. Given that a bruise is made up of many colors, it appeared unconvincing. This led Rockwell to place an ad in the local newspaper searching for individuals with actual bruises. From the myriad of responses he chose a young boy who met the requirement of a shiner in a “ripe” stage of discoloration.
And if imitation is the greatest form of flattery, one need only look at American popular culture, particularly the movies, to realize Rockwell’s enduring legacy. According to the filmmaker/director Robert Zemeckis, Forrest Gump (1994) contains several scenes inspired by Rockwell paintings, including one where Forrest appears seated outside the principal’s office, purportedly based on The Young Lady with A Shiner. And two of America’s best-known modern filmmakers, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, are huge Rockwell collectors, lending credence to his skill as a masterful storyteller.