152 – Tom Sawyer Whitewashing the Fence
Story illustration for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1936)
Oil on canvas
[NARRATOR] In 1935, Rockwell was commissioned to illustrate new editions of Mark Twain’s classics, “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn.” In this scene, Tom whitewashes a fence. He’s enticing his friend to take over this dreaded chore by pretending it’s the most fascinating thing he’s ever done.
Look closely at the brushwork on the fence. The visible strokes mirror the amateur paint job of the characters in the story.
[KNUTSON] He’s weaving the whole technique that he uses in this painting … into the subject matter of the painting, which is about–painting! (laughs) So it’s … very modern in that sense. And you know, most people say–Oh there is nothing modern about Rockwell’s painting!
Rockwell traveled to Hannibal, Missouri, Twain’s hometown, to scout locations and find authentic clothes for his models. He bought hats and shirts directly from people he saw walking on the street, even exchanging his own clothing with a man wearing the perfect, tattered outfit.
[NARRATOR] This is a scene from the book, “Tom Sawyer,” by Mark Twain.
[MARK TWAIN VOICE] Tom appeared on the sidewalk with a bucket of whitewash and a long-handled brush. He surveyed the fence, and all gladness left him.
[NARRATOR] If you haven’t already read the book–here’s what’s going on: Tom has to whitewash– or paint– the fence around his house, and he really really doesn’t want to do it. His friend Ben walks by, and Tom pretends he’s having too much fun doing his chore to go play.
[TOM SAWYER VOICE] Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”
[MARK TWAIN VOICE] That put the thing in a new light. Ben stopped nibbling his apple. Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth — stepped back to note the effect — added a touch here and there — criticized the effect again — Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed. Presently he said:
[BEN VOICE] “Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”
[NARRATOR] So–Tom gets all his friends to do his chore for him!
Now, I try never to fake anything in a picture like this. I went all the way to Hannibal, Missouri–Mark Twain’s hometown, on the banks of the Mississippi River–to find the right clothes for all the characters to wear. I bought the perfect worn-out hat right off of one man’s head.