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Willie Gillis: Food Package was on view at New-York Historical in 2018 as part of the exhibition Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms.
Written by Nicholas Castillo, 12th grade
Throughout the Second World War, American illustrator Norman Rockwell adapted his work to center around what would become iconic images of America during World War II. The painting Willie Gillis: Food Package, made as a cover for The Saturday Evening Post, is a prime example of this. This painting, created October 4, 1941, on the eve of American involvement in World War II, depicts a young private by the name Willie Gillis receiving a food package. Behind him are a group of older, larger soldiers. By the stripes on their sleeves we can tell many of them are higher ranking than the young private. The soldiers are eyeing the food package with what is clearly somewhat malicious intent. The exaggerated facial expressions, juxtaposition of young Willie with the older soldiers, and the use of bright colors all work together to create a lighthearted and comical atmosphere in the piece.
Gillis was a recurring figure in Rockwell’s work. American audiences fell in love with the young private and followed his adventures in 11 different The Saturday Evening Post covers. The first, Willie Gillis: Food Package, was published in 1941, while the last of the covers was published in 1946 and depicted Gillis at a university, presumably thanks to the GI Bill, which allowed veterans to attend college at the government’s expense. Covers showed Gillis meeting locals in different countries, peeling potatoes, or in other such innocent scenes, all while maintaining a wholesome light hearted atmosphere through color, humor, and exaggerated facial expressions. Gillis was the first character Rockwell chose to make a recurring one after Gillis’s mass popularity upon his first appearance.
Gillis appealed to Americans in a way that other war art did not. Most government issued war posters, created to spur support for the war or sell war bonds, depicted soldiers as heroic and brave. Depictions centered on tall, strong men who didn’t fear even the most dangerous circumstances performing heroic acts on the battlefield. In contrast, Gillis was intentionally not depicted this way. Rockwell modelled Gillis after a teenager he met in Vermont. Rockwell’s model, Robert Otis Buck, was only 16 when he met Rockwell, several years under the average age of an American soldier. Gillis appeared as young, short, and thin by comparison to other soldiers, and often with naive facial expressions. None of the published covers depicted Gillis on the front lines doing anything heroic. Rather, Rockwell chose to focus on less impressive moments. Rockwell chose to show Gillis receiving food packages, in church, or meeting the locals of different countries. These everyday moments coupled with the image Rockwell crafted of Gillis spoke to American audiences.
The reasons behind Gillis’s popularity reveal a lot about culture and society during World War II. In Gillis, America saw the relatability that government images of soldiers didn’t supply. As art critic Deborah Solomon wrote in her book American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, “[Gillis] was their absent brother or absent son.” This speaks to the level of national involvement in World War II and how that affected what Americans wanted in their depictions of soldiers. During the Second World War, military service grew to unprecedented numbers. By 1945, over ten million men were serving in the military out of a population of 150 million people. Never before and never again had so many men served in the U.S. military. For comparison, only about two million people serve in the U.S. military today out of a population of over 300 million. While many soldiers were volunteers, the majority were draftees. This meant the average World War II soldier was not a career military man. Soldiers came from every corner of the country and were not commonly from military families. Unlike the modern day, everyone knew somebody serving in the military. This is emblematic of that fact that World War II was a total war in which everyone became involved in the war effort. Whether it was young men shipping off to Europe, or women on the homefront working in factories, involvement in the war effort was nearly universal for that generation. Pop culture during this time reflected this as well. For example, music dealt with themes of factory work for women, and relationships with soldiers overseas. The biggest celebrities of the time, such as Bing Crosby or the Andrew Sisters, often appeared in pop songs or comedic films that centered around the war effort. All of these factors resulted in Americans wanting more human, flawed, and, all in all, relatable depictions of soldiers. These factors made Gillis a character that resonated with Americans at the time and the prevalence of the war in pop culture at the time meant that Gillis appeared on cover after cover of The Saturday Evening Post throughout the early forties.
Very few modern depictions of soldiers resemble the Willie Gillis paintings in style. Most depictions alternate between the patriotic; focussing on bravery of soldiers, and between the hyper serious; focussing on issues of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other negative aspects of military service. Few carry the light hearted atmosphere of the Gillis paintings and fewer still poke fun at soldiers the way Willie Gillis: Food Package does. Gillis is very much a product of his time. In the modern age of the smaller, purely volunteer army, the average American does not have the same level of connection to the military they did in the 1940s. Only at a time of mass military involvement and total war would a small, relatable character like Gillis be able to have mass appeal. Only at a time where the average American knew a military soldier would you be able to poke fun at soldiers. And only at a time of total war would conflict be so interwoven into the pop culture of the age that a magazine would publish 11 different covers with a comical soldier character. Willie Gillis, like much of Rockwell’s work, speaks to the culture, climate, and the history of the time in which it was made.
Brooks, Amy ““I’m Doin’ It for Defense”: Messages of American Popular Song to Women during World War II.” Electronic Thesis or Dissertation. University of Cincinnati, 2013. https://etd.ohiolink.edu/
Mahaney, Darlene C. “Propaganda Posters.” OAH Magazine of History, no. 16 (2002): 41-46.
Nilsson, Jeff. “Thanks, Robert Buck. Goodbye, Willie Gillis.” The Saturday Evening Post. May 28, 2011. Accessed August 2, 2018. http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2011/05/28/art-entertainment/art-and-artists/robert-buck-goodbye-willie-gillis.html.
Solomon, Deborah. American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell. New York City, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.
“America’s Wars.” US Department of Veterans Administrations. Accessed September 2, 2018. https://www.va.gov/opa/publications/factsheets/fs_americas_wars.pdf.
“By The Numbers: Today’s Military.” National Public Radio July 3, 2011. Accessed August 2, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2011/07/03/137536111/by-the-numbers-todays-military.
“Willie Gillis.” Tufts University. Accessed August 2, 2018. http://emerald.tufts.edu/programs/mma/fah189a/rockwell/rockwell.html.