By now many of you are well into your Thanksgiving preparations. Everything has to be just right, so you clean, get out Great Grandma’s blue delft gravy boat, and check to see if you have enough silverware and napkins. When Norman Rockwell had an idea for a painting, he was just as careful to get all the details just right. In this painting of a grandmother and her grandson in a train station diner, every detail of the setting, the models, and the props has been carefully worked out to tell a story.
Norman Rockwell was born in New York City in 1894. He was a skinny, unathletic kid with glasses, but he could draw. In junior high his teachers encouraged him to draw pictures to go with his reports, and at the end of his sophomore year, Rockwell quit high school to go to art school. At a time when many artists were turning to abstract art, he was determined to become an illustrator and looked back to artists like Winslow Homer and N. C. Wyeth for inspiration.
Rockwell’s instructors recognized his talent and helped him get illustration assignments for children’s books and Boys’ Life, the new magazine of the Boy Scouts. In 1913 he became its art director and continued illustrating their calendars for the next 50 years. In 1916 a very nervous Rockwell sold his first cover to the Saturday Evening Post, and over the next 47 years did more than 300 Post covers. During his career Rockwell painted portraits of world leaders and illustrated classics such as Tom Sawyer and Little Women, but he’s best known and loved for his Post covers.
For the Post, and later for Look magazine, Rockwell thought up his own ideas, and wasn’t so much an illustrator as an observer and commentator on life in America in the 20th century. With humor and poignant moments such as in Saying Grace, he helped us notice and appreciate the ordinary as well as big events of our lives. Through the Depression and both World Wars Rockwell’s paintings encouraged people and sold bonds. From a family going on vacation to Americans landing on the moon, Rockwell helped tell us about us.
In Storm on the Sea of Galilee, we’re watching a movie; in Country School, we’re standing in the doorway looking into the room. But in Saying Grace we are in the room sitting at that table in the foreground having a cup of coffee!
It’s a dingy diner with cigarette butts littering the floor. We hear quiet talking and clinking silverware, and beyond the window we see a railroad yard through the gray fog. It’s the kind of place we’ve all stopped at one time or another, and usually we eat quickly and leave, but here something has caught everyone’s attention. Conversation has stopped and we look up to see why. Everyone is staring at a grandmother and her grandson bowing their heads in prayer before eating. As usual in these situations we also look around to see how people react, and we see curiosity and interest, but no one is jeering.
How did Rockwell make all that happen? Not easily. This painting took months, and Rockwell even threw it outside one night before he finally got it to come together. But he was a great storyteller, using paint instead of words, and he was a painstaking artist who persevered until it was right.
Once he had his idea he chose its setting, models, and props. The setting for this painting was a train station in Troy, NY. Next came models, chosen not just for their appearance but for their ability to portray the characters in Rockwell’s story. Did they need to be young or old, hopeful or worried? Rockwell didn’t use the same models too many times, and he didn’t want to just come up with a person from his own head. He said, “All the artist’s creativeness cannot equal God’s creativeness.”
Props had to be just right, too. For Saying Grace Rockwell had a diner in NYC deliver dishes, tables and chairs to his studio for a few days, He once said that anything that didn’t help tell the story should not be in the picture. Find 3 still lifes that contribute to the atmosphere of a diner.
- dishes and newspaper in the foreground
knitting bag, purse, umbrella, and hat on the floor
condiments grouped together on the central table
Coffee cups certainly belong in a diner. How many are there? How many have a spoon? Can you find the two umbrellas?
Once all these things were decided Rockwell directed the taking of 100s of photos so that he had many poses and expressions to choose from, and also so his models, who weren’t professionals, wouldn’t have to hold a pose for too long. The little boy in Saying Grace was a third grader who had trouble sitting still even for the photographs. Many drawings and paintings from different angles followed the photo sessions.
And it all works. Notice how, in addition to the stares of the other diners, the silverware on the front table points to the lady and boy, and how her dark clothing stands out against the light window. In an earlier study the curtain was much higher, and above it you can see the heads of people walking by. Rockwell must have decided that this gray scene without distinct detail was much better at allowing us to focus on the quiet story unfolding within the diner.
Look also at how two bent elbows, one on each side of the central group, keep our attention focused there. Of course, there is red here, too–on the seat cushions, on the little boy’s hat, the knitting bag, and in the flowers on the grandmother’s hat. Not many artists can resist using red to attract our attention!
Rockwell continues to narrow our attention on the two who are praying. He has put their heads close together and used the lady’s white scarf and the boy’s white shirt to draw your eye to their bowed heads. Artists also often use repeating shapes to lead your eye around. The white coffee cup on the table in the foreground is repeated in the cups on the central table, which, together with the condiment jars, march across to the bowed heads.
Hands are very prominent in this painting—holding trays and umbrellas, curled around cigars, cigarettes, and coffee cups. Rockwell contrasts these with the grandmother’s hands that are clasped in prayer. He believed that next to faces, hands were the most expressive part of us and once said that Albrecht Durer’s painting of two hands in prayer was “one of the most moving pictures ever made.”
The Saying Grace cover was timed to come out just before Thanksgiving in 1951. In 1955 it was voted people’s favorite Post cover, and last year the original painting (Rockwell’s covers came from original paintings that were often quite large) sold for $46 million to an unknown buyer. Why is this painting still so popular?
Times have changed, and today this scene might be set in a smoke free airport food court, but people don’t change. Huge numbers of us still visit friends and family for Thanksgiving and can relate to the difficulties of holiday travel. In our minds, we can easily continue this story to Thanksgiving Day when the grandmother and her grandson will have finished their train trip and be with family or friends. And that’s what it’s all about, right?
They will again bow their heads, although at that special time, it will be over a table groaning under a turkey and all its trimmings. Rockwell painted that scene once, but in Saying Grace he’s helping us see and appreciate the everyday moments. In this dingy diner along the way to Thanksgiving, the grandmother and her grandson acknowledge before the world that even this simple meal has come from God.
In this country we have been blessed with great freedom and wealth, and at Thanksgiving many of us participate in the custom of telling what we are thankful for, but what about those daily moments such as the one in Saying Grace, when we can be a witness to others that all we have has come from God?
When the Israelites were about to enter the promised land and receive fruitful lands and orchards, God warned them not to think that their hands and their power had gained all those good things. In Deuteronomy 8 He says, “But remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you the ability to produce wealth….”
Rockwell wanted this painting to emphasize that Americans are tolerant of the faith of others, and this is a wonderful blessing we should never take for granted, but it also shows how ordinary people can be witnesses to faith in God in the ordinary moments of their lives.
The paintings in this blog are used solely for educational purposes.