Can’t let election day go by without at least noting this great, undersung painting by Normal Rockwell, “Election Day (1944)”:
Norman Rockwell, Election Day, 1944, watercolor and gouache, 14 x 33 1/2 in., Museum purchase, Save-the-Art fund, 2007.037.1.
Remember when people used to dress up to go to the polls?
In 1944 President Franklin Roosevelt ran for an unprecedented fourth term. Most Americans did not know it, but he was deathly ill at the time. He dropped Vice President Henry Wallace from his ticket — some argue it was a mutual disaffection at that time — and selected the relatively unknown young Missouri U.S. Sen. Harry S Truman for the vice president’s slot.
In November 1944, D-Day was known to be a successful invasion, and most Americans hoped for a relatively speedy end to World War II in both Europe and the Pacific. Within the next ten months, the nation would endure the last, futile, desperate and deadly gasp of the Third Reich in the Battle of the Bulge, the liberation of Berlin in April 1945, and end of the war in the European Theatre on May 8; the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Philippines Campaign, and the bloody, crippling battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa in the Pacific Theatre, and then the first use of atomic weapons in war, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and we hope, the last use).
Voters in Cedar Rapids could not have known that. They did not know that, regardless their vote for FDR or his Republican challenger, New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, Harry S Truman would be president within six months, nor that the entire world would change in August 1945.
This painting captures a time of spectacular moment, great naivity, and it pictures the way history got made.
For a 2007 exhibition, the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art offered this history:
Norman Rockwell: Fact & Fiction
September 12, 2009 – January 3, 2010
In 2007, the citizens of Cedar Rapids rallied together to purchase a series of watercolors destined for the auction block in New York. These five watercolors, by acclaimed 20th century American artist Norman Rockwell, depicted scenes associated with an election day and were created specifically for the November 4, 1944 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. To complete the Post commission, Rockwell traveled to a quintessential Midwestern town, Cedar Rapids, to study local citizens as models for his series of images.
In the 65 years since his visit, numerous anecdotes and stories have arisen about the artist’s time in Cedar Rapids and the creation of this work. This exhibition uses these five, newly conserved and restored watercolors and a related oil painting from the Norman Rockwell Museum, along with numerous photographs taken by local photographer Wes Panek for Rockwell, to investigate the many facts and fictions associated with Rockwell’s visit and this set of watercolors.
Norman Rockwell: Fact & Fiction has been made possible in part by Rockwell Collins, Candace Wong, and local “Friends of Norman Rockwell.” General exhibition and educational support has been provided by The Momentum Fund of the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation.
Friends of Norman Rockwell: Wilma E. Shadle, Howard and Mary Ann Kucera, Jean Imoehl, Ben and Katie Blackstock, Marilyn Sippy, Chuck and Mary Ann Peters, Phyllis Barber, Ann Pickford, Anthony and Jo Satariano, Barbara A. Bloomhall, Virginia C. Rystrom, Jeff and Glenda Dixon, Robert F. & Janis L. Kazimour Charitable Lead Annuity Trust, Fred and Mary Horn, Mrs. Edna Lingo, John and Diana Robeson, Jewel M. Plumb, Carolyn Pigott Rosberg, Mr. and Mrs. Robert J. Buchacek, Dan and Anne Pelc, Mary Brunkhorst, and John and Diana Robeson.
I am amused and intrigued that this scene also closely resembles the scene when I voted in Cheverly, Maryland, in 1984 — down to the dog in the picture. Oh, and most of the women didn’t wear dresses, none wore hats, and I was the only guy in the room with a tie.
Roosevelt won the 1944 election in an electoral college landslide, 432 to 99, but Dewey won Iowa, and we might assume Dewey won Cedar Rapids, too.
And that Truman guy? Rockwell came back to the topic of elections four years later, when Truman was running for election to the office he’d filled for nearly four years, with another classic, American election portrayal.
“Election Day,” by Norman Rockwell, 1948