Saturday, October 11, 2014

Norman Rockwell Had a Head for Whiskey


As a kid in the 1940s, I was addicted to a now defunct weekly magazine called “The Saturday Evening Post,”  rushing home from school to read it on it day it arrived in the mail.  A chief attraction was the frequent covers from the hand of Norman Rockwell, an American artist who lately has achieved iconic status.  Little did I realize at the time that Rockwell also was churning out a series of portraits for a whiskey called “Cream of Kentucky.”

Shown above in his famous “Triple Self-Portrait,” painted in 1960, Rockwell designed 323 covers for the Post and a dozen or more liquor advertisements for Schenley Industries, the manufacturer of “Cream of Kentucky.”   It was one of a number of blended whiskey brands that had sprung up after the repeal of National Prohibition in 1934.   Since this period coincided with the Great Depression in the United States, merchandising of whiskey often emphasized low cost while attempting to give some element of prestige and even snob appeal to the product.  This also was a time when pseudo-scientists were emphasizing facial types and even bumps on the head as keys to behavior.  Ad men were quick to latch on to those ideas. 

Rockwell, who had an uncanny ability to present quintessentially American and appealing faces, was able to oblige.   His images came in several series.  The first three ads shown here have a similar theme.  The portraits are of anonymous, smiling, middle-aged males with a definite affluent look.  The ads each ask a question.   “Have you eyes that spot value?”  The Rockwell portrait makes sure we know that the gent shown has “eyes that spot value” and “lips that relish luxury.”

“Does your face say, ‘I love life’?,” asks another ad.  Rockwell provides us with a laughing head who, we are told, has “sparkling eyes” and “smiling lips.”  He clearly drinks Cream of Kentucky blended whiskey.   But not too much drinking or his eyes may lose that sparkle.  The third example inquires, “Does your face show good judgement?”   In this case the figure is said to have “questioning eyebrows” and “appreciative nose.”  The artist has supplied them both.

From anonymous faces to famous physiognomies is a short step.  The next series by Rockwell was one that featured celebrity heads.   Again there is a question:  “Have you Eyes like Frank Buck’s — seeking Happy Adventure?”   While his name may no longer be a household word, in the 1940s Buck was renowned nationwide as a big game hunter and “animal collector.”  His book, “Bring ‘Em Back Alive,” was a bestseller and he starred in several jungle adventure movies.   Rockwell gives us an excellent likeness of the swashbuckling Buck.   We are directed to his eyes “alert for adventure,” his lips, “fond of life’s good things,” and his chin, “that portrays geniality.”   If our eyes, lips and chin resemble Buck’s, we are told, then we should drink Cream of Kentucky.
Harold Arlen was an American composer of popular music, having written over 500 songs, a number of which have become known worldwide. He composed the tunes for The Wizard of Oz, including the classic 1938 song, “Over the Rainbow.”   His reputation was at its peak when Rockwell featured him in a Cream of Kentucky ad.   The reader was asked: “Have you the eyes of someone who knows how to make A HIT?”  — like Harold Arlen.  Unlike Buck and Arlen, most Americans will not have known who Watson Barrett was.  The ad told them.  He was a “talented scenic designer and theatrical producer.”  Rockwell’s head of Barrett was marked by four arrows.  They pointed out “Features Indicating Talent”:  “Broad forehead with prominent knotty bulges above the eyes.  Long, pointed nose with a decided “bump” at the bone ridge below the bridge. Long-winged nostrils.  Jaw strong and well developed.  Chin pointed — with deep impression below lower lip.”  Rockwell has given us all of these.
At some point the series morphed into portrayals of American sportsmen and Cream of Kentucky was no longer a blend but “straight bourbon.”  Shown here is a Rockwell fisherman and the claim:  “If you are this type you’ll like this bourbon that’s ‘Double-Rich.”  The readers are asked if we have the angler’s features.  Marked are “large narrow Eyes of a type adept at weighing true merit,” and “the ample Mouth of a type with exceptional relish for good food and drink.”  This ad carried socio-babble to new lengths of absurdity.  Rockwell also provided Cream of Kentucky with a images of a golfer and a horse trainer.  As before, the face helped convey the message.
The final Norman Rockwell illustration broke tradition by showing two heads.  One is the distinguished older man, this one in white tie and tails.  He is being served a Cream of Kentucky bourbon and water by a obsequious black waiter.  It satisfies many of the stereotypes about servers of color that I have highlighted in the past. (See my post “Black Waiters:  Fetch, Toby, Fetch” of February 2011.).  Rockwell was not a racist.  In fact, he painted the single most popular image of the Civil Rights Movement.  Called “The Problem We All Live With,” it presents the affecting picture of a six-year old girl, Ruby Bridges, bravely walking with school books in hand between Federal marshals to her newly desegregated school in New Orleans.  Such was the culture twenty five years earlier, however, that the scene above was not deemed offensive.
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) had a long and productive life as an illustrator and artist.  The posthumous exhibits of his works draw large and enthusiastic crowds and at auction his original paintings go for millions.   Andy Warhol,  Dr. Seuss, and many other American artists of recognized stature have done liquor and beer ads.  That upon occasion Rockwell did  advertising work for a liquor company does not dim his luster.  Or diminish my fond memories of his Saturday Evening Post covers.

Note:  This post has not attempted to recapitulate Rockwell’s long and productive life as an artist.  For those wishing to know more about this remarkable man there is new, well-received book on his life called “American Mirror:  The Life and Work of Norman Rockwell” by Deborah Solomon.

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