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Museum Moment: 1948 Campaign ARTifact | October 31, 2023

Museum Moment: 1948 Campaign ARTifact

Alex Burden, executive director of the Truman Library Institute, shares his favorite piece of art on display at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum.

What’s your favorite piece of artwork on display at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum?

The Truman Library’s museum collection has nearly 33,000 objects, including more than 1,000 pieces of original artwork. Some of these are rarely seen (like Elaine de Kooning’s abstract portrait of John F. Kennedy), and others you just can’t miss (like Thomas Hart Benton’s mural in the museum). My favorite, though, is a Norman Rockwell painting that’s prominently featured in the all-new presidential exhibition at the Truman Library. It’s titled Breakfast Table Political Argument and was first seen on the cover of the October 30, 1948 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. It’s also known as Dewey Vs Truman.

Tell us more about this painting.

The painting depicts a husband and wife arguing about the candidates of the 1948 Presidential election – Harry Truman and Thomas Dewey. (By the way, visitors to the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum will find it in the Kansas City Southern WhistleStop Gallery, nicely paired with another iconic image from the 1948 election—the famous “Dewey defeats Truman” newspaper.)

This Rockwell depicts iconic 20c Americana, but it is also an intimate example of the political divisions and tension that existed then – and now. While the painting reminds us of an earlier era in politics, it underscores just how polarizing the 1948 election was while bringing to mind the political turmoil that continues to exist in America…even at the breakfast table.

Harry S. Truman with the newly acquired Norman Rockwell, prior to the opening of the Harry S. Truman Library in 1957

Is there a backstory to this artifact?

The painting was accessioned prior to the 1957 opening of the Truman Library, America’s first presidential library operated by the National Archives. (See photo of Truman viewing it in storage). As a nod to the timelessness of this artist, Rockwell’s works routinely can sell for tens of millions of dollars. As the saying goes, though, getting to see it in person at the Truman Library—the vibrant colors, the authentic details, the brush strokes—I think that’s priceless.

Describe this painting’s nuances. What catches your eye?

I love the authentic setting Rockwell created – a typical kitchen and morning from the late 1940s. It is contrasted by the intensity of their argument, which is creatively shown in several ways—first and foremost through the husband and wife’s interaction. Rockwell uses other characters in the painting to convey the fallout from the political conflict—the neglected, wailing child, the dog cowering under her chair, and the cat that looks like it is about to flee the scene.  It’s American politics in a nutshell . . . or breakfast bowl, in this case!

“Breakfast Table Political Argument” by Norman Rockwell, on permanent display at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

Alex Burden is the Executive Director of the Truman Library Institute, the member-supported, nonprofit partner of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum. For more than two decades under Burden’s leadership, the Truman Library Institute has provided financial, programmatic, creative, and staffing assistance to make the Truman Library a dynamic center for the study of the presidency. Most recently, this includes raising over $55 million for the Stay TRU Capital Campaign, including $30 million for the largest museum renovation since the Library’s doors opened in 1957. Alex also led the Truman Statue Campaign to fund, create and install a bronze statue of President Truman in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.