Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Duck Fever

Most of Rockwell's best-known pictures were made for the Saturday Evening Post.  But that doesn't mean that most of his best pictures were made for the Saturday Evening Post.  My favorite Rockwell wasn't, just for example.  It's all too easy to restrict your attention to the best-known pictures, but you can't understand Rockwell without looking elsewhere.

Rockwell himself broke his work up into four categories: magazine covers, illustrations, calendars and advertising.  (Get a copy of How I Make a Picture, which I mention here, to see what he has to say about this.)

His illustrations often gave him an opportunity to work in formats he couldn't do on magazine covers--strong horizontal compositions, for example.

(That's him there on the left.  No, not the crazy looking guy with the big mustache.  The other guy.)

But even his advertising images were often extremely good.  I would have thought he'd be least inclined to really work hard on a picture for a straight-up ad.  But Rockwell didn't work that way.  He generally went far beyond what could be reasonably expected of him.  Now, I do not think the picture I'm about to discuss is one of his best.  It's a fun picture, but not a masterpiece.  But I do think it is better than most of the Post covers he was making at the same time.

The picture was made in 1922 as an advertisement for the Western Cartridge Company, which, through a series of corporate maneuvers I cannot bring myself to try to follow, somehow became connected with Winchester, until it wasn't.  Under Dad's left hand, you can see the words "His First Duck."

The foreground is unusual for Rockwell--the grass is painted out of focus.  And the boat is even more unusual.  I haven't seen this canvas, so of course all I have to go on is the small reproduction above.  But looking at the brush strokes and colors and what appears to be the thickness of the paint, the boat looks strongly Impressionistic.  For that matter, so do the clouds, and even much of the boy's coat.  More, the warm glow of the boy's left side looks like it would be very appealing in person.  Rockwell was having a good time with this picture, and I think he made a lovely canvas.

But there's more than that here.  Rockwell manages to tell a little hunting story here that any hunter would find both encouraging and entertaining.  You might get stuck on the slightly alarming fact that it puts the viewer into the duck's place.  Dad is looking and pointing straight at us, and Son is pointing at us, too--with more than a finger.  (Puppy appears to be averting his eyes.)  Subtle and subversive anti-hunting commentary from Rockwell?  Meat is murder?  Hardly.  Rockwell was an occasional hunter himself, and clearly wasn't trying to sneakily condemn the practice while also profiting from it through his advertising work.  No, there's a better reason for the orientation of the boy's face.

What do you see when you look at him?  Someone familiar with shooting will notice immediately that Rockwell has deliberately painted the boy's shooting eye--his right eye--off its proper line with the front bead sight.  And he has done this so that we can see that the boy's shooting eye is closed.  He's got his left eye--the wrong eye--open.  (Nothing against you lefties.  But if you're going to aim with your left eye, you'll need to fire off the left shoulder!)  This kid is so discombobulated that he's shooting with his eye shut.

Now, there's a phenomenon well-known to hunters called "buck fever."  The hunter in the grips of buck fever may shake uncontrollably, or he may do strange things like unloading his rifle instead of trying to fire it.  This boy is in the grips of buck fever, or, more appropriately, duck fever.  He's not entirely in control of what he's doing.  But the picture is called "His First Duck."  That could mean the first duck he's ever taken a shot at.  But it seems to me that the implication is bit more: that the boy got his duck, despite his struggle with duck fever.  Those who find hunting unpalatable will no doubt consider this an unfortunate outcome.  But customers of the Western Cartridge Company--the sort who might be interested in buying shotgun ammunition in order to go hunting with it--will see it differently.  It's a happy ending for this little family.  Hunters can see themselves in these characters.  The hapless boy, or the eager dad.

This is merely an advertising image, and yet Rockwell managed to get into the job and make a picture with real resonance for his audience--a picture that demonstrates some keen insight into what he's painting.  Hunting has always been with us, and always will be.  And buck fever no doubt always has, and always will, accompany hunting.  Rockwell has gotten inside this deeply human experience and painted it like nobody else I know of.  It's a brilliant little picture.

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