Skip to main content
Go to accessibility notice

    Description

    Norman Rockwell (American, 1894-1978)
    The Census Taker, The Saturday Evening Post cover study, 1940
    Oil on board
    16-1/2 x 13 inches (41.9 x 33.0 cm)
    Signed lower right: Norman / Rockwell




    PROVENANCE:
    Curl Galleries, Washington D.C.;
    Private collection, Virginia.

    EXHIBITED:
    Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, "Art of American Illustration," September 11-November 21, 1976.

    LITERATURE:
    N. Rockwell, Rockwell on Rockwell, New York, 1979, p. 66, illustrated;
    L.N. Moffatt, Norman Rockwell: A Definitive Catalogue, Vol. I, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, 1986, p. 145, no. C382a, illustrated.

    Norman Rockwell's April 27, 1940 cover for The Saturday Evening Post, The Census Taker, captivated audiences with its humor. Here, an earnest and slightly rumpled census taker opens his giant ledger to record the names of the next family on his list. Behind him, the mother of a redheaded household, anchoring the composition with her monumental triangular form, grips twin babies in her arms. Meanwhile, her four other children--a roughly nine-year-old boy with a toddler on his back, a seven-year-old girl, and a five-year-old boy on his knees--peek out from behind her skirt. Mother and children alike have worn their Sunday best in anticipation of the special visit, but the census taker has arrived early, before Mama could remove her hair curlers and apron. Flustered by the ruckus, she has to remember the names of her children by counting on her fingers. The Census Taker recalls numerous other Rockwell Post covers that employed humor as a marketing tool: a wimpy boy lifting weights while staring at a poster of a body builder, an exhausted family passed out on a bench after their "relaxing" vacation, a tattoo artist crossing off the sixth girlfriend name on a sailor's biceps. Regardless of the situation, Rockwell's benign brand of humor made his subjects relatable and memorable.

    While amusing, The Census Taker also documented a serious event in American history, the 1940 census, which occurred on April 1, only weeks before the debut of this Post cover. Conducted every ten years, the census captured data on the entire US population on a single day. A government advertising campaign prior to April 1 reminded citizens that it was their patriotic duty to open the door for the census taker, or "enumerator," and answer questions pertaining to numbers of family members living in the domicile, employment status and annual income, education, participation in New Deal programs, military service, and adults' birthplace (fig. 1). Over 635,000 census workers recorded answers to the questions in a portfolio-sized book before transferring the information to punch cards for electronic tabulation. The demographic facts gathered on "Census Day" would then guide civic leaders, business people, and legislators in directing and improving the country. Results from the 1940 census indicated that the U.S. economy was bouncing back from the Great Depression, especially as industries had begun increasing hiring in preparation for the country's likely entry into WW II. 1940 signaled progress and prosperity.

    Those who peeled back The Census Taker cover of the April 27, 1940 Post edition saw ample evidence of this progress and prosperity. Three quarters of the pages of the magazine feature advertisements promising readers access to upper-middle-class leisure, luxury, and efficiency. Coiffed wives in heels and their dapper husbands in suits offer everything from newfangled General Electric washing machines and Sunbeam "Ironmasters" to streamlined new models of Chryslers, Plymouths, and Pontiacs to entertainment helpers like Ritz Crackers and Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup. Smiling, well-groomed families even glamorize SPAM: "Wife: 'What can I do for my Lord and Master?' Husband: 'Cook that SPAM, bake a little faster!' Son: "We behave whenever mom makes. . .' Daughter: '. . . SPAM and eggs or SPAM and pancakes!'" These interior advertisements told readers that if they bought certain products, they would be beautiful and organized with orderly children, not disheveled and overwhelmed like the mother on the cover of the magazine. The advertisements also presaged Rockwell's 1950s illustrations for Massachusetts Mutual life insurance Co., in which he idealizes the upper-middle-class family as white, two-parent, two-kid, physically attractive, church-going, educated, and financially successful.

    Rockwell comments on ethnicity and class in The Census Taker, as well. The large, redheaded family is likely Irish Catholic, underscored by the mother's "shamrock-green" colored dress. Furthermore, Mama's apron, unruly hair, coarse hands, and swollen feet (shoved into her fanciest shoes) align her less with advertisement models and more closely with Rockwell's portraits of working-class women: haggard, apron-wearing cleaning ladies taking a break to read a playbill (Charwomen in Theater, 1946); sweet and frumpy hotel maids chuckling over the occupants of a room (Just Married, 1957); a tired, wrinkled mother in a print dress and apron sharing a moment with her son in their country kitchen (Thanksgiving: Mother and Son Peeling Potatoes, 1945); or a stout, wild-haired woman leaning over the railing of a New York tenement building to exclaim at a traffic jam (Roadblock, 1949). Rockwell invoked the family from The Census Taker in his 1945 The Homecoming, an iconic image of Irish Catholic working-class life (fig. 2). Here, the setting is clearly urban and working-class, a redbrick apartment building with broken windows, laundry hanging on the line, and trash on the ground. Against this backdrop, a heavy, redheaded, apron-wearing mother rushes out onto her front steps and flings open her arms to greet her soldier-son returning from war. Her husband and three of her redheaded children gleefully spill out from behind her, while another redheaded son cheerfully repairs a roof. Despite the squalid environment, the family projects an air of health, happiness, and industriousness.

    Indeed, Rockwell favorably portrayed working Americans, regardless of class, by using both humor and documentation. The census taker in Rockwell's 1940 Post cover is a comic foil to the befuddled mother; pushing back his hat and longing for the cigarette behind his ear, he wearily records the names of her family members. At the same time, the census taker is reminiscent of a documentary series Rockwell executed for the Post in the 1940s, which profiled the daily work of a country editor, schoolteacher, family doctor, and county agent. Author Christopher Finch reiterates, "Rockwell gives us a rather varied picture of Americans at work. He shows us people working with their hands and people working with their heads and he accords them all equal dignity. At the same time he does not give us a Puritan view of the inviolable sanctity of labor. Work, he seems to suggest, is something that is as apt to produce amusing moments as anything else" (C. Finch, Norman Rockwell's America, New York, 1975, p. 224).

    Ultimately, Rockwell turned an even eye to the wide spectrum of class, work, and family experience in America. He could poke fun of a wealthy couple--a chic housewife boring her husband with fabric swatches (The Decorator, 1940)--just as he could sanctify a humble country family (Thanksgiving: Mother and Son Peeling Potatoes, 1945). And vice versa. In Rockwell's world view, rich and poor (or simply average middle-class) alike were worthy of jest, compassion, and admiration. Author Dave Hickey summed up Rockwell's gift as the great equalizer of humanity, a gift which made a painting like The Census Taker so successful: "Rockwell was always the democratic history painter, portraying a world in which the minimum conditions of democracy are made visible. His best paintings insist in a perceptible way that the atmosphere of benign tolerance, the tiny occasions of kindness, comedy, anxiety, and tristesse that he portrayed, far from being evidence of human vanity, are critical elements in the fate of the Republic; conditions that must exist if it is to survive in historical time" (M. Hennessey et al., Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, Atlanta, 1999, pp. 125, 128).

    A copy of the April 27, 1940 Saturday Evening Post accompanies this lot.




    Condition Report*: Board measures 19.875 x 16 inches; light overall paper discoloration with matburn; hinged to backing board at top edge; vestiges of old mat and adhesive in margins; under UV light, there appears to be no inpaint. Frame measures 24 x 20.5 inches.
    *Heritage Auctions strives to provide as much information as possible but encourages in-person inspection by bidders. Statements regarding the condition of objects are only for general guidance and should not be relied upon as complete statements of fact, and do not constitute a representation, warranty or assumption of liability by Heritage. Some condition issues may not be noted in the condition report but are apparent in the provided photos which are considered part of the condition report. Please note that we do not de-frame lots estimated at $1,000 or less and may not be able to provide additional details for lots valued under $500. All lots are sold "AS IS" under the Terms & Conditions of Auction.

    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    May, 2018
    4th Friday
    Bids + Registered Phone Bidders: 5
    Lot Tracking Activity: N/A
    Page Views: 4,933

    Buyer's Premium per Lot:
    25% on the first $250,000 (minimum $19), plus 20% of any amount between $250,000 and $2,500,000, plus 12% of any amount over $2,500,000 per lot.

    Sold for: Sign-in or Join (free & quick)

    Heritage membership

    Join Now - It's Free

    VIEW BENEFITS
    1. Past Auction Values (prices, photos, full descriptions, etc.)
    2. Bid online
    3. Free Collector newsletter
    4. Want List with instant e-mail notifications
    5. Reduced auction commissions when you resell your
      winnings 
    Consign now
    • Cash Advances
    • More Bidders
    • Trusted Experts
    • Over 200,000 Satisfied Consignors Since 1976
    Consign to the 2019 October 8 Photographs Signature Auction - New York .

    Learn about consigning with us

    Your reply to my request for an auction appraisal was the most encouraging, comprehensive, and enthusiastic reply I got (and a got several).
    Robert M.,
    New Harbor, ME
    View More Testimonials

    HA.com receives more traffic than any other auction house website. (Source: Similarweb.com)

    Video tutorial

    Getting the most out of search

    Recent auctions

    2014 November 21 Tiffany, Lalique & Art Glass Signature Auction
    2014 November 21 Tiffany, Lalique & Art Glass Signature Auction
    REALIZED $1,441,296
    2014 November 17 American Art Signature Auction
    2014 November 17 American Art Signature Auction
    REALIZED $6,712,638
    2014 November 14 American Indian Art , Pre-Columbian, & Tribal Art Signature Auction
    2014 Nov 14 American Indian Art, Pre-Columbian & Tribal Art Auction
    REALIZED $441,524
    2014 November 8 Modern & Contemporary Art Signature Auction
    2014 November 8 Modern & Contemporary Art Signature Auction
    REALIZED $5,683,719
    2014 November 6 Silver & Vertu Signature Auction
    2014 November 6 Silver & Vertu Signature Auction
    REALIZED $439,980
    2014 October 18 The Belo Collection of Texas Art Signature Auction
    2014 October 18 The Belo Collection of Texas Art Signature Auction
    REALIZED $624,835
    2014 October 16 Photographs Signature Auction
    2014 October 16 Photographs Signature Auction
    REALIZED $824,108
    2014 September 28 Nature & Science Signature Auction
    2014 September 28 Nature & Science Signature Auction
    REALIZED $1,089,341
    2014 Sept 13-14 Gentleman Collector Signature Estate Auction
    2014 Sept 13-14 Gentleman Collector Signature Estate Auction
    REALIZED $1,725,292
    2019 April 23 Illustration Art Signature Auction - Dallas
    2019 April 23 Illustration Art Signature Auction - Dallas
    REALIZED $2,477,033