Norman Rockwell (1894-1978)|Marriage Counselor, 1963|Illustration intended for The Saturday Evening Post, c. 1963 but unpublished; offered to Ladies Home Journal, 1972, but unpublished|oil on canvas|Norman Rockwell Museum, NRACT.1973.111

In Norman Rockwell’s illustrations it is quite common to find references to other art used as a signifier of culture or as a reference to the setting or content of the picture. The unpublished illustration Marriage Counselor, is one such illustration, which is rather startling since the subject of the illustration would appear to be domestic violence. In constructing this image Rockwell placed us, the viewers, in the doorway of the marriage counselor’s office looking into the waiting room as if we are the counselor who has opened his office door and seeing this couple for the first time. Rockwell indicates that the counselor is male by hanging a man’t hat and umbrella on the wall to the left of the open door.

The couple is seated on a couch next to each other but not really interacting; the waiting room décor gives us some idea of the counselor’s point of view. While the counselor’s office is painted a vibrant red-orange tone, a color signifying anger, confrontation, and also passion, the waiting room is restfully arranged in pale tones of beige and yellow. To the right of the sofa a partial view of bookshelves with about a dozen books is visible. Only two of the books on the shelves have readable titles: a Phaidon Press publication labeled Van Eyck and a tall art book with the name Giovanni Bellini on its spine. Interestingly both of those titles can clearly be seen on the bookshelves in 1960s photos of Rockwell’s Stockbridge studio. So why did Rockwell single out those two titles from his shelves and include them in this illustration?

The Van Eyck title is probably meant to subtly reference the painter’s famous double portrait, Giovanni Arnolfini and His Bride, 1434 (London, National Gallery of Art). Especially since one of the details of this fifteenth century couple is the little dog shown standing between them and under their joined hands meant as a symbol of fidelity (the dog’s name Fido comes from the Latin fido meaning “to trust.”)

I might have expected the other readable book spine to show the name of Paolo Veronese, the famous Venetian painter of the biblical story of the Marriage at Cana, but instead we find the only other readable binding with the name of a different Venetian painter, Giovanni Bellini. Why Bellini? His oeuvre is of mostly religious paintings, which was pretty normal for his time. And of those religious paintings, Giovanni Bellini is known for his many paintings of the Madonna and Child, images of a sweet loving mother holding her only and precious son. So perhaps Rockwell is equating the woman of a marriage with a gentle and loving mother, something this woman does not appear to be.

During the planning of this painting Rockwell’s photographer made at least 70 photographic studies of the set-ups for it using: different men models; different women models; a man in a light-colored suit and hat; a man in a dark-colored suit and hat; the wife with her chin not down; and with her chin tucked down in a different position. Only one of the women models for this illustration has a floral pin attached to the right shoulder of her dress, although another one has a circle pin pinned at the right edge of the neckline of her dress.

In the final painting, Rockwell created a rather different and distinctive pin for the wife. At first glance the pin looks like a flower-form piece of costume jewelry. Upon closer inspection the pin ceases to look like a flower and instead looks like the form of a Japanese samurai warrior. And wouldn’t that little bit of fun make the real point of this illustration—that the wife, as contrite as she seems to appear, sitting quietly beside her rather stuffed-shirt husband, holding his hat and waiting for their appointment with the marriage counselor is really finding all of it rather funny. Indeed Rockwell’s final choice for the wife has her head tilted up so that she can look up from under her brows at the shiner she gave him. The right side of her mouth is slightly lifted as though she is smirking. Notice also that as she hold’s her husband’s derby hat, her right index finger is wrapped in a bandage–like a valiant samurai honorably wounded in battle.

July 1, 2009

Joyce K. Schiller, Curator, Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies
Norman Rockwell Museum