Norman Rockwell’s Elect Casey, which appeared as the cover of the November 8th, 1958 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, depicts a defeated politician following a hard run campaign. The election cover has precedent, not only in other early works by Rockwell, such as Political Argument of 1920, but works by other American illustrators employed by The Post, such as Joseph Christian Leyendecker. The Post, recognizing Leyendecker’s popularity with the readership, approached the artist in 1908 to expand his repertoire to include depictions of important current events, specifically that he illustrate the publication’s first ever election day cover to appear on the October 31st issue. By the 1950s, political covers were a staple of the magazine. In fact, the new editor of The Post, Ben Hibbs, pushed Rockwell to be topical and current, so as to increase circulation of what was already the magazine with highest circulation in the nation. Elections, as the hallmark of the American Democratic system, spoke to the nation in a language everyone could understand, and as a result, Rockwell envisioned the concept for this blockbuster cover.
Rockwell enlisted Bernard “Dick” Casey as the model for this cover. Casey had served eight terms in the state legislature of Massachusetts and, therefore, could well embody the emotional drain of the campaign trail. Rockwell hired photographers to take the reference images for his works, often taking over 100 photographs for a single painting. He preferred the photographers to be amateur and that the images be taken in black and white, so as not to influence his color selection. Much like a movie director, he changed the figures’ positioning, details of the background and their clothing throughout his deliberate creative process, which usually entailed doing several small studies in oil for color followed by a very detailed charcoal study to scale. He then applied color to dramatic effect. Virginia Mecklenburg writes, “It is a tribute to, not a criticism of, his highly developed intellect and social sensibilities to acknowledge that Rockwell calculated his pictures for maximum and particular impact.” (Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, Washington, D.C., 2010, p. 28)
For Rockwell, Casey’s expression, which appears three times in the image, was the most important to exact for the composition, and Rockwell sifted through countless photographs of the various facial poses of Dick Casey. The present work presents the candidate on his election posters with wide eyes and a big
broad smile. The finished charcoal drawing (Private collection) and the final Post cover reveal a slightly more sympathetic looking figure, less eager but with more experience. Yet, in all three versions of this image to scale, Casey’s expression and body language, slumped in a chair from sheer exhaustion, remain constant.
Rockwell initially conceived of this cover to depict the final hours of the election in advance of the result, and he intended the cover to be published before the outcome was announced on November 4th, 1958. As a result, both the present work, and the finished charcoal study, depict the cover as originally intended. It is possible that the present work in oil was begun as the finished work, given the large scale of the canvas and the execution of the image in this medium. Rockwell would have projected the finished charcoal image onto the canvas to begin work on the final version of the oil. While most of the composition is executed in sepia-toned oil on the white ground, a thicker, richer impasto can be seen in the American flag in the upper right, which Rockwell likely chose as a starting point to painting the composition in earnest.
Once the editors announced that the cover was to be published following the results of the election, several amendments needed to be made to the final composition. In the finished version, the results of the election lie at the feet of the politician confirming a landslide defeat, as his angry supporters trail out of campaign headquarters. The energetic figures in the doorway of the present work and charcoal study have been replaced by a menacing gentleman who appears in the far right of the finished version of the cover. Stockbridge native Tom Carey, resident mailman for over 50 years and general tour guide of the area posed for this figure in the painting. In the wake of defeat of his candidate, he angrily chomps a cigar as he departs the headquarters, looking on in disgust over the lost.
By 1958, Rockwell’s covers were becoming increasingly sophisticated, creating entire narratives through a single image and he no longer shied away from the more difficult topics of the era. In fact, these Post covers from the late 1950s, such as the present work, directly presage his charged political imagery for Look Magazine in the 1960s. Virginia Mecklenburg notes this turning point in Rockwell’s work from his earlier treatments of political topics: “But not until Elect Casey did he present the emotional impact of an election on an individual candidate. The painting demonstrates that Rockwell had come a long way from the unquestioned patriotism of the Boy Scout and Lindbergh pictures. It is a statement about the complex nature of American democracy and negotiation among multiple points of view.” (Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, p. 166)
As in Rockwell’s best work for The Saturday Evening Post, the subject of Elect Casey is not the candidate or even politics, but rather the championing of the underdog. From his very first cover for The Post in 1916, Boy with Baby Carriage, Rockwell has identified with the downtrodden, the meek and the overmatched. This enduring theme is what, in large part, makes Rockwell’s work both so touching and so universally understood. The politician, posed for Casey, can be seen as Rockwell’s avatar. Rockwell, ever insecure, would have identified with the defeated candidate, having often felt small, meek and overlooked himself--both throughout his childhood, and by the art world. An enduring theme of his works is to champion the little guy, who is always painted in a sympathetic and endearing light. This parallel is furthered in that Rockwell revisited this triple portrait composition in his most iconic work, Triple Self Portrait, of 1960 (Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts).
Norman Rockwell’s work has always been characterized as a reflection of our better selves, capturing America as it ought to be. His work is often also viewed as both of a moment and simultaneously timeless, in its communication of the universal truths of human nature. “In the twentieth century, visual imagery permeated American culture, ultimately becoming the primary means of communication. Rockwell’s images have become part of a collective American memory. We remember selective bits and pieces of information and often reassemble them in ways that mingle fantasy with reality. We formulate memory to serve our own needs and purposes. Rockwell knew this instinctively: ‘Everything I have ever seen or done has gone into my pictures in one way or another...Memory doesn’t lie, though it may distort a bit here and there.’” (M.H. Hennessey, A. Knutson, Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, exhibition catalogue, Atlanta, Georgia, 1999, p. 64) Laurie Norton Moffatt, Executive Director of The Norman Rockwell Museum 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, New York, 1999, p. 26) As in all of Rockwell’s greatest works, Study for ‘Elect Casey’ depicts a distinctly American scene while also reflecting universal values. Today, it remains as appealing and heartwarming to contemporary viewers as it did when it was first painted.