Updated: Feb 17, 2022
There are so many Norman Rockwell paintings on a Christmas theme that choosing one was almost the death of me. Somehow I managed, though, I just can't say my selection was based on a deep or resonant meaning. I chose Tired Salesgirl on Christmas Eve (1947) because it recently sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $4.3 million. I like the painting but will freely admit that was the sole reason it made the cut. Then I started writing and realized it dovetails nicely with the commercial undercurrent of the piece.
Unlike his more sentimental portraits of seasonal home and family life, this scene is a department store. The cathedral of commerce has just closed on Christmas Eve. We know that because of my favorite little detail in the piece: the sign warns customers that the store will close at 5:00 while the timepiece attached to her dress reads 5:05. We don’t know how long she has been on her feet but her slumped posture and shell-shocked expression scream out that it’s been a while. As with almost any Rockwell, it has a kind of ‘snapshot’ look to it, like it was captured on the spur of the moment. That masks the very strict creative process he used for each of his pieces, a process that may have been a little too strict. He typically sketched the scene first, meticulously staged it with props and people, then had it photographed. That was a tough gig for the poor photographer. Rockwell the perfectionist made him take dozens of pictures while the scene was tweaked through dozens of iterations. The result was always a well-calibrated scene but one that often looks too tightly controlled, in my opinion. Register that as my only substantive criticism of Rockwell. The photo shoot for this piece took place in Chicago’s Marshall Field Department Store. He used toys from their shelves and auditioned several models. Incidentally, the girl we see was a 17-year-old waitress at a local diner whom I don’t think even auditioned.
Like most Rockwell pieces, this one transports you to a world that is either fading or long gone. In 1947, the department store was on the rise as America’s commercial Mecca. They would multiply and dominate the consumer landscape from World War II to Paul Blart: Mall Cop. But obviously that has changed. So if Rockwell painted this today, how would it look? A tired Amazon worker plopped down by the conveyor belt? An exhausted mail carrier or delivery driver asleep at the wheel in the parking lot? The essence would be the same, but the setting radically different. And how would it look 70 years from today? Ok, just one more thought. I have another favorite detail and it’s her feet. She looks like nothing in the world could make her happier than a good foot massage. I can just about feel my own feet aching, maybe because 12-hour shifts make me feel the same way.