Recently, we enjoyed the pleasure of a visit from Dr. Susan Birns and the bright, inquisitive Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) students in her American Family class. The group joined Curator of Education Tom Daly, Dr. Birns, and I in conversation about the power of published art in mid twentieth century America, and the messages about established gender roles in family life as reflected in the illustration art of the era. After their visit, the class was presented with a print of Norman Rockwell’s 1955 Saturday Evening Post cover, Marriage License, as well as an assignment from Dr. Birns, who invited them to analyze the piece within the context of their studies. We appreciate the opportunity to showcase the astute observations of six of Dr. Birns students, including Marissa Mahoney, Stephanie Esposito, Amanda Burnham, Samantha Burke, and Julia Ashton, and we know you will enjoy them too.
“The Marriage License” painting by Norman Rockwell reflects many aspects of gender roles in family life. First of all, the person working at the marriage license office is a male. This is because women did not often work outside the home then; it was mostly men. Next, the body language between the couple shows that the man is in charge by how he is holding her and guiding her as she fills out the paperwork. Also, the woman is on her tippy toes while the man is shown as strong and tall. This shows that the woman is more vulnerable than the man. This picture shows many characteristics of how the males were in charge back then and took authority.
Commentary by Marissa Mahoney
“The Marriage License” depicts a couple – an older man and a younger woman – applying for their marriage license while the office’s clerk, an old man, waits for them to finish. A perfect depiction of gender roles in family life, the woman is standing on her tiptoes to fill out her portion of the form while her soon-to-be husband looks over her shoulder, probably waiting to correct any silly mistakes. He’s holding onto the paper with one hand, ready to retrieve the form as soon as she’s done. The fact that the desk is so tall she has to tiptoe to reach it implies that it is a desk meant to have men stand in front of it. The old man sitting behind the desk is just patiently waiting while they finish. If the woman were not already accompanied by a man, however, I think we’d see a different image – the clerk standing over the woman guiding her through this very complicated form.
Commentary by Stephanie Esposito
This painting is similar in nature to many of Rockwell’s paintings. It may not be obvious at first, but there are clearly defined gender roles represented, even in an everyday situation like this. It is subtle, but it is clear that in this situation, the man is leading in a way. He is watching over his wife to be as she signs their marriage license. She stands up on her toes to be able to sign the document as well, giving her the presence of a weaker individual compared to the man who is clearly quite tall. Her dress also reflects the times in a way. It is bright yellow, almost an indication of what she is expected to be – bright, cheerful, innocent. This is not to say that Rockwell looks down on women, rather it is the reflection of the ideas of society at that time through the medium of painting done by a good man.
Commentary by Kevin Shea
Rockwell loved to depict family life as happy and loving relationships. He wanted to show these relationships as they should be. In this painting he shows a man and his young wife applying for their marriage license. Although the gentleman is very attentive towards his bride, with his arm around her, we can still see that the young woman seems quite childlike. She stands on her tiptoes in her heels and pretty dress as her soon-to-be husband guides her. It seems like he is watching over her every move to make sure she is doing it right. Although Rockwell wanted to show this bond between a man and a woman as a good thing, we still see these strict gender roles that existed in the 20th century.
Commentary by Amanda Burnham
In Norman Rockwell’s painting “The Marriage License,” his view of gender roles in family life is clear. I first notice the patriarchal role displayed. The husband-to-be has his arm over his fiancée. Not only that, his whole upper body is closed around her space. That tells me that he is showing protection for her, but also a power he believes he has over her. The wife-to-be is standing on her tippy toes to show that she is smaller than him, and so less powerful and in need of protection. The wife-to-be is also the one filling out the application while the husband watches intently over her shoulder. This shows that Rockwell does believe that women should have some superior role in a relationship as well. Even though her husband is watching, she is the one filling out a legal document, not her husband. Rockwell does show the women as more angelic and innocent as well because she is in shown in bright colors that are used to light up the room.
Commentary by Samantha Burke
Norman Rockwell painted what he wanted us to remember. So, his view of the 1950s was relatively cheery compared to how that time actually was. In this painting there is a woman very much serving her gender role. She is wearing heels and a dress as was expected at the time and she is very dainty. As she is signing the certificate she seems somewhat unaware of the harsh, strict role of a 1950s wife that she is about to enter into. The man, her future husband, is fulfilling his gender role in that he is tall, strong, and protectively wraps his arm around her, showing his position of power. It is evident that his family role will be one as the head of a patriarchal family. He supervises his fiancée filling out the form as he will supervise her actions critically in the future. This painting very much reflects Rockwell’s style. He portrays the stereotypes of family and gender at the time, but he does it in a way that reflects a cheery, happy time. He wants us to remember the good times, not the bad.
Commentary by Julia Ashton
What do you think about Rockwell’s work and the views reflected in these essays? Please do share your thought with us, we look forward to hearing from you!