Norman Rockwell captured the hearts of millions of households through iconic illustrations for the most notable American publications of the twentieth century, and these images continue to resonate with audiences around the world to this day. Originally published as the cover illustration for the September 1935 issue of This Week magazine, Harvest Moon is a quintessential Rockwellian image of young love, embodying an idyllic way of life to evoke a nostalgic hopefulness in its viewers.
As epitomized by the present work, Rockwell has a unique way of transforming classic, all-American subject matter into powerful, innovative storytelling. As the artist himself reflected, “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. Commonplaces never become tiresome. It is we who become tired when we cease to be curious and appreciative.” (Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, New York, 1999, p. 24) Indeed, the honest simplicity of rural life explored in Harvest Moon is a thoroughly common subject frequently explored by American artists throughout history, from Winslow Homer to Thomas Hart Benton. Rockwell and fellow illustrators, including N.C. Wyeth, similarly saw the American countryside as a vehicle for reconnecting with their national identity, yet employed their own narrative-focused perspective to heighten their works’ emotional resonance.
In Harvest Moon, a young boy donning a straw hat, bandana and daisy rests his arm gently around his sweetheart. With a coy grin, the young girl leans into her suitor’s arms as the two enjoy each other’s company under the light of a full moon. As a nocturnal scene—a rare style within Rockwell’s oeuvre—the brightness of the lantern and the moon against the deep azure sky combine to create an aromatic and cinematic image. The nightime setting also acts to add a hint of humor, suggesting that the two lovers are out past curfew and thus further drawing the viewer into the romantic narrative. Rockwell executed this composition in the 1920s, first placing a Coca-Cola bottle in the hand of the all-American male hero in a related study. When the present final painting was ultimately published in 1935, the innocence of these young lovers would have provided a much needed respite from the economic downfall of the post-Depression era as well as from the rapid modernization of mid-twentieth century America.
As in some of his most celebrated works, the subject of young love was a theme which Rockwell consistently explored in hopes of instilling his paintings with a timeless sentimental value. Christopher Finch writes, “Taking his work as a whole, we will find that he constantly returns to certain basic themes. It is as if he is circling them, studying them from different angles, trying to pin them down attempting to extract the essence.” (Norman Rockwell’s America, New York, 1975, p. 90) Indeed, Harvest Moon seems to literally “study from a different angle” one of Rockwell’s most beloved Saturday Evening Post covers, Boy and Girl Gazing at Moon (Puppy Love) of 1926. While the present work shows the couple from the front rather than the back, and the subjects appear a bit older, both paintings clad the charming couple in folky polka-dot dress and kerchief with a daisy and, of course, feature the full moon as an angelic framing device within the scene. These everyday couples innocently sitting together in embrace highlight the very essence of love in its purest form: simple and unspoken, yet palpable and affectionate. As these works illustrate, “Rockwell’s young lovers are generally fairly attractive but seldom glamorous. He constantly affirms the fact that everybody has the right to fall in love. He does not give us fashion-plate couples. In his treatment of young love, as in his treatment of everything else, he is devoted to the notion that ordinary folks are capable of a poetry of behavior which is as deserving of our attention as any other kind of poetry.” (Norman Rockwell’s America, p. 93)
As exemplified by Harvest Moon, Rockwell’s most memorable works have been characterized as reflections of our better selves, capturing American life as it ought to be. Laurie Norton Moffatt writes, “His images convey our human shortcomings as well as our national ideals of freedom, democracy, equality, tolerance and common decency in ways that nobody could understand. He has become an American institution. Steven Spielberg recently said, ‘Aside from being an astonishingly good storyteller, Rockwell spoke volumes about a certain kind of American morality.’ It is a morality based on popular values and patriotism, a morality that yearns above all for goodness to trump evil.” (Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, p. 26) With its honest narrative of young, idealistic love, Harvest Moon embodies this hopeful nostalgia in which audiences have continually found comfort and inspiration, and which established Rockwell as a true American icon.