In his book Rockwell on Rockwell: How I Make a Picture, Norman Rockwell published his January 24th, 1948 Saturday Evening Post cover, Happy Skiers on a Train, accompanying the following reflection: "Now, what makes a good idea? First, it must be original. By this, I do not mean that nothing on the subject ever has been done before, but you must have a new slant or approach which will interest people. Second, it must be up-to-date. People like to recognize themselves and their problems in pictures. A really good idea should also possess a third quality - it should contain an element of humor and of pathos. The most popular idea is the one which makes the reader want to smile and sigh at the same time." (p. 30) The present work is indeed the perfect illustration of the humorous nostalgia with which Rockwell captured the hearts and minds of America from the covers of popular magazines. Evoking memories of winter vacations past, and both chuckles at and commiseration with the reluctant suited passenger at the center of the boisterous crowd, Happy Skiers on a Train epitomizes Rockwell's unmatched ability to not only tell a compelling, relatable story in just one striking image, but also to execute his vision with masterful technique and detail.
As America's preeminent illustrator of the twentieth century, Norman Rockwell painted a sweeping range of topics during a time of great change, and moreover helped forge America's national identity through his work. Reflecting the nation's frame of mind over the decades, his work transitioned from the profound during World War II to the joyous in the post-War era. Published in 1948, Happy Skiers on a Train exhibits this notion as a transition from earlier works on the train travel theme, including the poignant war-era A Little Girl Observing Lovers on a Train (1944, Private Collection) and witty post-war Boy in Dining Car (1946, Norman Rockwell Museum). As in those works, Happy Skiers on a Train conveys the unique sense of community among passengers that can be created by the confines of a small railway car, but embraces a decidedly more exuberant tone. Happy Skiers on a Train shares its lightheartedness with some of Rockwell's most celebrated Saturday Evening Post compositions from the same year, including Breakfast Table Political Argument (1948, Norman Rockwell Museum) and Tough Call - Game Called Because of Rain (1948, National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, New York). Like the latter work, Happy Skiers on a Train takes a unique perspective on a classic American pastime, focusing on his characters' expressions and the environment rather than the action of the sport itself.
Rockwell elevates Happy Skiers on a Train above these great conceptual ideas through the meticulousness with which he executed his subject, resulting in a representation of the full magnitude of his artistic genius. As in other 1948 Post covers, such as Girl and Shopkeeper (1948, Norman Rockwell Museum), The Dugout (1948, Brooklyn Museum) and Christmas Homecoming (1948, Norman Rockwell Museum), the present work is at the peak of Rockwell's artistic development, with a level of detail and complexity of design on par with the work of the greatest Old Masters. During his career, Rockwell was witness to the height of Impressionism as well as the development of Cubism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Despite the trends of the day, however, he chose to pursue a career as an illustrator and follow in the tradition of an earlier art historical precedent. In fact, both the manner of execution and the complexity of design in Happy Skiers on a Train can be seen as drawing on Renaissance paintings, in which the artists demonstrated their skill by playing with numerous angles and picture planes, a proliferation of figures and a profusion of textures. The modern day interior of a packed train car similarly affords Rockwell a platform from which to highlight his own artistic skills. From the dark night and twinkling lights visible through the window, to the festive frieze of polar bears and penguins set out across the sweater at lower right, each and every surface is made realistically palpable through Rockwell's talents as a draftsman and painter.
To create the immersive setting and expressive characters within Happy Skiers on a Train, Rockwell took a series of several preparatory photographs. He adopted this technique in the 1940s, as he began to paint fully realized scenes like the present work rather than figures silhouetted against plain white backgrounds. Using photography meant that he did not have to rely on professional models posing for hours on end, and he could capture the various expressions of his sitters in an instant. Rarely satisfied with a single photograph when staging his elaborate tableaus, the finished illustration was often a composite of many different images. David Kamp writes of this exhaustive creative system, “First came brainstorming and a rough pencil sketch, then the casting of the models and the hiring of costumes and props, then the process of coaxing the right poses out of the models, then the snapping of the photo, then the composition of a fully detailed charcoal sketch, then a painted color sketch that was the exact size of the picture as it would be reproduced, and then, and only then, the final painting.” ("Norman Rockwell's American Dream," Vanity Fair, November 2009, p. 5)
For Happy Skiers on a Train, Rockwell had genuine train coach seats shipped from Albany to his Arlington, Vermont studio, and then posed some of his favorite models and closest friends among them to compose his story of the "timid commuter who finds himself on a train packed with boisterous weekenders on their way to the ski slopes." (C. Finch, Norman Rockwell, p. 389) Gene Pelham, friend and model for many works including the famous Willie Gillis covers, posed as the prankster in the center pulling down Clarence Decker's cap, who may also be the man at upper left. Clara and Jim Edgarton, Rockwell's next door neighbors, model as the man and woman at far left; John Proud models as the commuter in the center; and the artist's wife, Mary, poses as the woman at upper right. A related photograph of Rockwell holding a pair of skis, in which he appears on the cusp of a wry smile, provides evidence that the artist might have related more to the jolly revelers within his painting, rather than with the uncomfortable commuter.
As Christopher Finch declared, “The period from the mid-forties until the late-fifties was perhaps Rockwell’s time of greatest achievement.” (Norman Rockwell’s America, New York, 1975, p. 31) Painted during this height of his career, Happy Skiers on a Train coalesces the nostalgic, everyday subject matter and superb realism by which Rockwell grabbed reader's attentions from the cover of The Saturday Evening Post and continues to compel viewers to this day. Rockwell's portraits of America are both a faithful historical record of, and a tender tribute to, American popular culture, and Happy Skiers on a Train exemplifies the best of his quintessential Rockwellian charm.