Election day art of Norman Rockwell, and the unpredictability of elections

Can’t let election day go by without at least noting this great, undersung painting by Normal Rockwell, “Election Day (1944)”:

Norman Rockwell, Election Day, 1944, watercolor and gouache, 14 x 33 1/2 in., Museum purchase, Save-the-Art fund, 2007.037.1.

Norman Rockwell, Election Day, 1944, watercolor and gouache, 14 x 33 1/2 in., Museum purchase, Save-the-Art fund, 2007.037.1.

Remember when people used to dress up to go to the polls?

In 1944 President Franklin Roosevelt ran for an unprecedented fourth term.  Most Americans did not know it, but he was deathly ill at the time.  He dropped Vice President Henry Wallace from his ticket — some argue it was a mutual disaffection at that time — and selected the relatively unknown young Missouri U.S. Sen. Harry S Truman for the vice president’s slot.

In November 1944, D-Day was known to be a successful invasion, and most Americans hoped for a relatively speedy end to World War II in both Europe and the Pacific.  Within the next ten months, the nation would endure the last, futile, desperate and deadly gasp of the Third Reich in the Battle of the Bulge, the liberation of Berlin in April 1945, and end of the war in the European Theatre on May 8; the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Philippines Campaign, and the bloody, crippling battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa in the Pacific Theatre, and then the first use of atomic weapons in war, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and we hope, the last use).

Voters in Cedar Rapids could not have known that.  They did not know that, regardless their vote for FDR or his Republican challenger, New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, Harry S Truman would be president within six months, nor that the entire world would change in August 1945.

This painting captures a time of spectacular moment, great naivity, and it pictures the way history got made.

For a 2007 exhibition, the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art offered this history:

Norman Rockwell: Fact & Fiction

September 12, 2009 – January 3, 2010

In 2007, the citizens of Cedar Rapids rallied together to purchase a series of watercolors destined for the auction block in New York. These five watercolors, by acclaimed 20th century American artist Norman Rockwell, depicted scenes associated with an election day and were created specifically for the November 4, 1944 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. To complete the Post commission, Rockwell traveled to a quintessential Midwestern town, Cedar Rapids, to study local citizens as models for his series of images.

In the 65 years since his visit, numerous anecdotes and stories have arisen about the artist’s time in Cedar Rapids and the creation of this work. This exhibition uses these five, newly conserved and restored watercolors and a related oil painting from the Norman Rockwell Museum, along with numerous photographs taken by local photographer Wes Panek for Rockwell, to investigate the many facts and fictions associated with Rockwell’s visit and this set of watercolors.

Norman Rockwell: Fact & Fiction has been made possible in part by Rockwell Collins, Candace Wong, and local “Friends of Norman Rockwell.” General exhibition and educational support has been provided by The Momentum Fund of the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation.

Friends of Norman Rockwell: Wilma E. Shadle, Howard and Mary Ann Kucera, Jean Imoehl, Ben and Katie Blackstock, Marilyn Sippy, Chuck and Mary Ann Peters, Phyllis Barber, Ann Pickford, Anthony and Jo Satariano, Barbara A. Bloomhall, Virginia C. Rystrom, Jeff and Glenda Dixon, Robert F. & Janis L. Kazimour Charitable Lead Annuity Trust, Fred and Mary Horn, Mrs. Edna Lingo, John and Diana Robeson, Jewel M. Plumb, Carolyn Pigott Rosberg, Mr. and Mrs. Robert J. Buchacek, Dan and Anne Pelc, Mary Brunkhorst, and John and Diana Robeson.

I am amused and intrigued that this scene also closely resembles the scene when I voted in Cheverly, Maryland, in 1984 — down to the dog in the picture.  Oh, and most of the women didn’t wear dresses, none wore hats, and I was the only guy in the room with a tie.

Roosevelt won the 1944 election in an electoral college landslide, 432 to 99, but Dewey won Iowa, and we might assume Dewey won Cedar Rapids, too.

And that Truman guy?  Rockwell came back to the topic of elections four years later, when Truman was running for election to the office he’d filled for nearly four years, with another classic, American election portrayal.

“Election Day,” by Norman Rockwell, 1948



Yes, this is an encore post.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post.

2 Responses to Election day art of Norman Rockwell, and the unpredictability of elections

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    I think generally it’s a small issue, but it can get out of hand. Texas has prosecuted about a score of people in the past 15 years for vote fraud, in almost every case an absentee, mail-in ballot.

    But of course, the GOP legislature and attorney general wink at that fraud, and concentrate instead on mis-named “voter fraud” laws that are designed to stop blacks and Hispanics from voting.

    In my family, there is the famous story of my grandfather’s losing the election for sheriff of Daggett County by one vote. And there is my grandmother’s entertaining story of who cast that one vote, and why.

    Historically, the idea of a secret ballot is a very new development. As late as 1900, employers sometimes printed the ballot workers were to cast, and had supervisors escort workers to the polls. Ballots were printed on colored paper different from the one available at the polls, so supervisors could be certain the workers voted the way the company wanted them to vote.

    If I recall correctly, Utah is one of the states that does not actually have a law protecting ballot secrecy (I’d be happy to be wrong about that . . .).

    Secret ballot rights are among those rights we assume have basis in law and undergird our democratic institutions, but which do not exist except in recent practice and myth.


  2. Bob Becker says:

    That second election painting nicely illustrates one of my objections to mail-in voting which is becoming very widespread in Utah. Some county elections are now exclusively mail-in.

    Here’s the problem: campaign worker told me of canvassing door to door for congressional race in S. Dakota some years ago. On several doorsteps an often beligerant man told him “we’re voting for X!”, a male candidate. Sometimes slamming to door. But the wife, working in a garden caught his attention and mouthed silently “I’m voting for Y!” a woman candidate. In the secrecy of a polling booth, that can hsppen. But if hubby and wife are sitting down at the kitchen table filling out mail-in ballots, will it? Where there is no secrecy? Especially in homes where hubby considers himself by right or his faith “head of the household” who makes all the key decisions? Can elderly voters in those circumstances be assured a secret (and so free) ballot if it’s mail-in? I’m doubtful.

    I’ve asked local officials what protections for a secret ballot exist in a mail-in election. I’ve gotten no substantive answers. Is the truly srcret ballot (behind that curtain on election day) worth surrendering for mere convenience ? I’m not convinced it is.


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