Norman Rockwell’s Willie Gillis: Hometown News belongs to a series of eleven covers he created for The Saturday Evening Post, which feature the fictional soldier, Willie Gillis, Jr. in various stages from enlistment to attending college on the G.I. Bill. This series, the first of its kind for the artist, debuted in 1941 and continued beyond the end of the War in 1946. While Rockwell is perhaps best-known for his very charming and particularly humorous covers, the Willie Gillis series reminds us of the intellectual and intelligent artist well aware of his capacity to shape a nation’s consciousness through his promotion of a single ideal. “Rockwell had a knack for the direct hit, the image that would connect with the widest possible audience.” (David Kamp, ‘Norman Rockwell’s American Dream,’ Vanity Fair, November 2009)
Willie Gillis: Hometown News appeared on the April 11th, 1942 cover of The Saturday Evening Post just as America was in the throes of World War II. The nation was focused on holding onto the traditional mores that had thrived before the War to give them comfort in these troubling times. Perhaps the greatest tradition in America was that of the nuclear family, and the ties that bind. As Victoria Crenson 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. The Willie Gillis covers spoke repeatedly to that bond of affection. The Saturday-matinee movie serials always left the hero in peril. Rockwell’s serial works of the 1940s—the Willie Gillis covers, the Four Freedoms, the reportorial picture essays—aimed instead to convey a comforting sense of continuity.” (Norman Rockwell, New York, 1989, p. 93).
Norman Rockwell stated, "I had conceived of the idea of a series of Post covers depicting the army experiences of a young civilian, sort of an innocent fellow who suddenly found himself caught up in a completely strange life." (N. Rockwell, Norman Rockwell: My Adventures as an Illustrator, New York, 1994, pp. 326-27) Rockwell found his 'innocent fellow' in Robert 'Bob' Otis Buck, a local Arlington, Vermont resident. Karal Ann Marling writes, "One Friday night, at the Grange Hall, he saw that sweet-faced, plucky innocent in the person of Robert Otis Buck... Bob Buck, age sixteen, was going to be Rockwell's everyman--everybody's son, kid brother, boyfriend, ex-paperboy. He was going to be The Saturday Evening Post's Willie Gillis, Jr." (Norman Rockwell, New York, 1997, p. 91). The small town of Arlington with its distinct New England feel appealed to Rockwell, and his arrival in 1939 precipitated an improvement in his creativity and motivation. The move to Arlington also coincided with a shift in his working methods that would have a profound impact on his work. In New Rochelle, where Rockwell lived and worked up until that time, he relied upon professional models, enlisting them for hours until he achieved the desired effect in his paintings. Around 1937, just prior to the move, Rockwell began to incorporate photography into his creative process. This meant he could stage elaborate tableaus as subjects and capture the various expressions of his sitters in an instant. This new approach, coupled with a town full of fresh faces willing to pose for the celebrity artist, meant a flurry of artistic inspiration. Susan E. Meyer writes, "In Arlington, Rockwell discovered dozens of models who could suit his purposes. He found them everywhere--in the general store, square dancing at the grange hall, driving along the road, in the post office. Arlington had as many types as the artist had ideas." (Norman Rockwell's People, New York, 1987, p. 65)
Willie Gillis: Hometown News features the young, wide-eyed soldier Willie taking a break from “K.P.,” or kitchen patrol, duty. A soldier on K.P. peeling either potatoes or apples was a familiar image during the war, popularized in movies (such as ‘Caught in the Draft,’ starring Bob Hope) and comic strips from the era, and featured in at least one other Rockwell cover for The Post, Mother and Son Peeling Potatoes (1945, Private collection). The image of a soldier, far away from home, whether physically or metaphorically, yet still performing a function so readily familiar, introduced a relatable element to his subject, tying the soldier to every person at home. As if to underscore this, the theme of Willie Gillis: Hometown News, and indeed several others from the series, is to highlight the importance of maintaining familial relationships. In the present work, Willie is excitedly reading a newspaper clipping that his mother has sent to him. The front page is highlighted with a photograph of Dad and various other items in the paper are underscored. A letter, addressed to Willie, rests at his feet, along with other marked up editions of the paper. Willie has taken a moment of respite from the task of peeling to read these clippings, and as such, connect with home.
In Willie Gillis: Hometown News, Willie is shown from above, a compositional construct which heightens the young and innocent soldier’s vulnerability. The excited and wide-eyed expression, coupled with the unexpected moment of leisure from an otherwise tedious task of peeling apples, exhibit hallmarks of Rockwell’s signature wit and humor. The unusually bright palette of reds and pinks lends this particular cover an air of gaiety and promise that some of his other more serious treatments of War lack.
Rockwell's 'Willie Gillis' series was tremendously popular with readers of The Saturday Evening Post. Deborah Solomon writes, "Willie is a boyish figure, an American innocent, and readers of the Post were enchanted. Here was their absent brother and absent son. When you look at his face--the chubby cheeks, the jug ears, the open, honest expression--it is unimaginable that anyone could think of harming him… The life of Willie Gillis, as related by Rockwell, ran counter to the nation's dominant military narrative. It shifted attention from glamorous military men--from marines and sailors and pilots seated in open cockpits with their long, white scarves fluttering behind them in the sky--to the lowly, unsung infantry man...The journalist Ernie Pyle noted, 'War makes giant creatures out of us little routine men who inhabit the earth.' Little routine men--they were the heroes not only of war but of all American life. That was Rockwell's view certainly and it would acquire the force of a national credo in 1942, when Vice President Henry Wallace paid homage to the 'Century of the Common Man.'" (American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, New York, 2013, pp. 194-95)
The scope of Rockwell's appeal is still expanding as new generations live through the same quintessentially American types of experiences that Rockwell so faithfully depicted in his art. "For six decades, through two World Wars, the Great Depression, unprecedented national prosperity and radical social change, Norman Rockwell held up a mirror to America and reflected its identity through the portraits he painted of its people...Rockwell's paintings have done more than just sell magazines. They are in a large measure the visual memory of a nation." (V. Crenson, Norman Rockwell's Portrait of America, New York, 1989, p. 9) Covering a sweeping range of topics, including the difficult subject of war, Rockwell helped forge a sense of national identity through his art.