Girl Returning from Camp encapsulates Norman Rockwell’s unique ability to weave an entire narrative through solely the distinctive expression of his subject and the objects he carefully selects as their accompaniments. As the artist instructed in Rockwell on Rockwell: How I Make a Picture, with the present work illustrated as a key example, “A good picture is a combination of many things—including props…In my opinion, nothing should ever be shown in the picture which does not contribute directly to telling the story the picture is intended to tell.” (New York, 1979, p. 82) In Girl Returning from Camp, the complex assortment of props is used to brilliant effect, demonstrating Rockwell’s role as the visual storyteller of his generation. Christopher Finch writes of Girl Returning from Camp, “One virtue of this fine cover is that it tells us much about what must have happened to this wistful girl in the past few weeks. She herself is believable—indeed, Rockwell seldom painted a more convincing portrait of a child—but the mementos she is taking home with her really bear the weight of the story.” (Norman Rockwell: 332 Magazine Covers, New York, 2013, p. 380) As with all of Rockwell’s best paintings for The Saturday Evening Post, through these elements, the present work succeeds in combining, in equal measure, both humor and sentimentality.
Painted for the August 24th, 1940 cover of The Saturday Evening Post, timed to coincide with the return of the millions of children who were sent off to summer camp, Girl Returning from Camp depicts a young camper, bedecked in her camp uniform. She is waiting to be collected after a summer at ‘Camp Out O’ Doors,’ as denoted on her rucksack. Her entire outfit is painted in a deep brown, apart from a crisp white shirt and red tie. A tattered hat with her bus ticket tucked in tops her unruly locks. Her brown shoes, worn with tall bobby socks, are perfectly scuffed, echoing the patina of age of the steamer trunk on which she is seated. Beyond all of the nuances in just her attire, she is surrounded by an overwhelming number of souvenirs from a summer spent out of doors. They include a snake, its bright green skin vibrant through the confines of a small jar; a turtle, tied to her foot with a string leash; and a vermin, cautiously trying to escape its cage. A bird’s nest rests neatly against her leg, although the birds appear to be long gone. Every detail suggests that this young girl has wholeheartedly embraced her summer away and is reticent to part with her new friends. Diana Denny writes, in her article “Classic Covers: Rockwell’s Kids of the 40’s,” “Just as they do today, droves of youngsters in the 1940s made their way to camps for an outdoor adventure. This particular one came home with everything except the cabin, making it a perfect vehicle for Rockwell’s passion for detail. She seems sad to leave the friends she made and get back to real life, where it remains to be seen if Mom and Dad will go along with the critters she collected.” (The Saturday Evening Post, March 16, 2012)
Regardless of its many crawling creatures, Girl Returning From Camp, like many of Rockwell’s Post covers from the period, depicts a quieter moment rather than the high point of action. This style of image-based narrative is quite different than that of his illustrator predecessors, particularly Newell Convers Wyeth. Judy Larson and Maureen Hennessey note, “While other illustrators might choose the high points and milestones of life, Rockwell focused on the elusive commonplace moments. He chose mundane experiences and elevated them to levels of great significance. He avoided the wedding ceremony, for example, in favor of applying for a marriage license; he did not paint the football hero scoring the winning touchdown, but the proud moment when he receives a letter from an adoring cheerleader. In No Swimming, Rockwell focused on the aftermath of a forbidden swim and was thus able to capture the universal in the scene...” (Norman Rockwell: A New Viewpoint, in Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, exhibition catalogue, Atlanta, Georgia, 1999, p. 48) Girl Returning from Camp embodies exactly this mode of storytelling, using myriad props to depict the end of a joyous summer in such a way as to maximize the sense of relatable humor and nostalgia.
Despite the very familiar subject matter with universal appeal, Girl Returning from Camp elicited more letters from Post readers than any other cover, including his seminal 1951 cover Saying Grace. “Norman Rockwell (yes, Norman Rockwell) had many readers of The Saturday Evening Post ‘in a whirl’ after his illustration for the magazine’s August 24, 1940 cover was published. The oil on canvas painting (later titled Home From Camp) featured a young child in proper dress sitting amidst a collection of items rough and worn from the outdoors, including an old trunk, axe, backpack, flowers, and even live snake and turtle. However, this assortment of lively souvenirs is not what got most readers talking… it was whether the child pictured on the cover was actually a ‘he’ or a ‘she!’” Norman Rockwell Museum Archivist Jessika Drmacich writes, “letters implored Rockwell to settle workplace bets, family wagers, or just plain confusion regarding the gender of the cover’s central character.” In a fan letter dated August 27, 1940, reader Ruth Beriwick from Cleveland, Ohio, wrote, “All the men in our department say it is a ‘he’, but I swear it is a ‘she’ and can hardly wait to get your reply confirmation;” similarly, Berle Adams from St. Louis, Michigan pleaded to Rockwell, “will you settle an argument for us? My husband and my best friend insist your child…is a boy (who has been camping and been without benefit of a barber) and I hold that it is a nature loving little girl, who will grow up to be a decided old maid, teaching botany and zoology in some college.” (“Rebel, Rebel, Rockwell,” www.nrm.org, n.d.)
This confusion over his cover is perhaps unsurprising for two reasons, the first being that Rockwell’s depictions of young girls were quite infrequent as compared to his depictions of young boys. When Rockwell did employ girls as models, they were often of a specific type, and more often a tomboy. As such, the subject of Girl Returning from Camp anticipates some of Rockwell’s later covers for the Post, perhaps most notably Girl with Black Eye, in depicting a determined young woman. In Girl Returning from Camp, the hat, and uniform complete with a tie would have further confused the readers. In fact, Girl Returning from Camp can be seen as an expansion upon Rockwell’s steady stream of imagery he created for the Boy Scouts of America. Rockwell began this series in 1924 and painted works for them spanning over half of a century. The compositions, which were featured in Scouting Calendars, depicted all manner of camp themed imagery, featuring the boys in uniform and completing Scout tasks. Whether Girl Returning from Camp was inspired by this imagery or not, Rockwell’s camper, clearly a tomboy, may have been informed by his work for the Boy Scouts, on which he had earned his early reputation.
Perhaps Rockwell said it best when he described “a moment of self-discovery” in 1936, stating, “‘I know now that all I need in my work is at hand…The commonplaces of America are to me the richest subjects in art. Boys batting flies on vacant lots; little girls playing jacks on the front steps; old men plodding home at twilight, umbrellas in hand—all of these things arouse feeling in me,’…These were the richest subjects for the artist/illustrator; it was his mission to celebrate the ordinary, ‘the things we have seen all our lives, and overlooked.’” (J.L. Larson, M.H. Hennessey, “Norman Rockwell: A New Viewpoint,” in Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, exhibition catalogue, Atlanta, Georgia, 1999, p. 33) By celebrating just such a subject, Girl Returning from Camp is universal in its appeal. While the painting was created nearly eighty years ago, it speaks to the timelessness of Rockwell’s best works, those images that transcend a specific moment to evoke a powerful, and often visceral, sentimental reaction from their audience.