Norman Rockwell prepared each of his magazine cover illustrations as fully realized paintings. It did not matter to him that his audience would see his work only in reproduction. The image reproduced would only be as fine as the work it replicated. More recent artists—David Hockney is one—whose work is widely distributed in reproduction paint for the more limited capacities of the reproductive process. That permits the artist to work faster, omitting those subtleties of tone and touch that are lost in duplication. Rockwell, by contrast, painted for viewing as if the work itself were headed for exhibition on a gallery wall.

 

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978),

 Rockwell conceived this oil on canvas as a business traveler’s desperate late-night attempt to reconcile his expense account. He spared no effort acquiring props and staging his compositions. He told Saturday Evening Post art editor Ken Stuart he wanted a “cold almost bluish light” to evoke the feeling of desperation. When Stuart suggested they overlay an expense account around the traveler, Rockwell set the Pullman car scene against boundless white space—an abyss of frustration. He replaced his early model, Louie Lamone, with his neighbor Ernest Hall, whose body language was more harried and more humorous.

To bolster atmosphere in his narratives, Rockwell amassed a hoard of ready props. Numerous business trips to New York provided him with the ticket stubs, receipts, and nightclub ephemera this Pullman traveler is adding up. Post readers reacted to the cover with the usual assortment of feelings. A man from Norfolk, Virginia, said it was “far from funny . . . a moral tragedy,” but a Cleveland reader, called it “superb,” and said he did a lot of traveling and well appreciated the character’s dilemma. And a woman from Texas said her three-year-old son learned his first curse word, “damn,” while his father was preparing his expense account.

First published on the Post cover, November 30, 1957, Expense Account seems just right for the one fateful day of the year when the postmark is critical. The government holds our expense account. We are all sitting in that Pullman seat.

Damn!
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