She sits on a worn-leather trunk. A tiny turtle is at her feet, a snake in a jar rests on her lap, and a small brown mouse peeks out of a trap situated behind her. She’s just returned home from camp, according to the title of the painting, and seems to have had trouble leaving behind these live souvenirs of nature. The tableau may seem all very innocent, all very Norman Rockwellian—after the artist whose works of sentimental scenes of happy families, sprightly adults and kids doing the ‘darnedest things,’ turned his name into a synonym for earnestly-American, turned his name into an art critic’s epithet ‘art for the masses’; after the artist who in fact painted Home from Camp. But here’s the catch: the country’s ‘most popular’ artist ruffled a gaggle of feathers when the illustration appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, sparking a debate about gender. The source of this “tempest of dissension”—as the editors of the Post called it—was whether the kid in the painting was a girl or a boy. A preposterous argument, yet if it occurred today would certainly have broader, more serious implications.
But social politics and the controversies of the Scouts aside, this was 1940, and the outcry was far more lively than libelous. One reader wrote, “My husband and my best friend insist your child… is a boy (who has been camping and been without benefit of a barber) and I hold that it is a nature loving little girl, who will grow up to be a decided old maid, teaching botany and zoology in some college.” Another reader pleaded to settle a bet, “All the men in our department say it is a ‘he’, but I swear it is a ‘she’ and can hardly wait to get your reply confirmation.” The Scouts themselves chimed in: a Boy Scout said he was certain the kid was a girl, the bandage on her knee had been ineptly applied; and a Girl Scout cried out that Rockwell had confused his audience with the masculine accoutrements of “the suspicious snake and field mouse.” Perhaps that was Rockwell’s intention all along, to blur the gender-lines, to subtly reflect America’s cultural naïveté when it came to his art. As the biographer Laura Claridge points out, in every other painting the sexes of his subjects are deftly defined. Rockwell never said what, if anything, he had had in mind. Nevertheless, his folksiness of his themes belies his profound intelligence as a painter. He understood his art and came to accept the ‘rueful’ place the art world assigned to him. His son remembered, “Often Pop would tell me that someone had come up to him and said, ‘I don’t know anything about art, but I sure like your stuff.’ I wish it were the opposite—that they’d tell me, ‘I know lots about art and I really love your work.’”
Of the more than three hundred covers Norman Rockwell illustrated for the Saturday Evening Post, Home from Camp provoked the greatest number of letters.