Set in the town clerk's office just footsteps away from Rockwell's first Stockbridge studio on Main Street, Marriage License captures Rockwell's fascination with the somber wood-paneled interiors of his favorite seventeenth-century Dutch painters. Indeed, the building itself is fashioned after one pictured in Jan Vermeer's A Street in Delft. In keeping with the older style, Rockwell replaced an existing metal file cabinet in the left foreground with an old railroad station stove. His model for the town clerk had recently lost his wife, and the authenticity of his feelings adds power to the poignancy in this study of youth and old age.
The relationship with Vermeer is evocative, because Vermeer was one of the first painters to use a camera obscura (forerunner of photography). He too would pose his models as if in a piece of theatre, to transform a moment in time into the eternity of one of his paintings. (On 15 July 2010 I wrote an OnFiction post on my pilgrimage to Delft to see where Vermeer lived and painted, and in it I discuss the idea of painting as theatre; click here.)
For me, the effect of my research on "Marriage License" prompted a transformation of an entirely different kind: it completely changed the way I saw the painting. Rather than an invitation to the imagination, the picture had become a piece of social history. Knowing that there was a real young couple, who did indeed get married, and knowing now (as Corry told me) that the woman in the picture is still alive and her husband died just three years ago, prompted a completely different impression. Now as I look at the picture I see the young couple as if I were to walk past on the street and see them outside the church door after the ceremony. No more irony. It's no longer a commentary on the social absorption of being in love, no longer the imagination of art, with its layers and implications. It's about the real. I find myself wishing the couple well in their lives together or—knowing now a fragment of their subsequent lives—hoping that their marriage was a good one.
In social history, the young couple are themselves. In art they are themselves and at the same time wonderfully different.
My thanks go to Amanda Korman and Corry Kanzenberg, and to the lady in the Yankee Candle shop. In the transformation from Rockwell's final photographic study to the painting, the words "Town Clerk" on the door have been changed to "Marriage Licenses;" the calendar date has been changed to June 11, 1955 (the date of the issue of the Saturday Evening Post for which this would be the cover picture). There are other changes, too: in the painting, foliage seen through the window has been added and a kitten sidles out from behind the clerk's chair.