Rockwell, Bookkeeping, and the Plight of the Modern CPA

“I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed. My fundamental purpose is to interpret the typical American.”

—Norman Rockwell

Americana is synonymous with the name Norman Rockwell. He observed small-town life through a unique lens, always highlighting his deep appreciation for “the everyday” by showcasing his interpretation of an ideal America.

From Boy with Baby Carriage (1916) to The Problem We All Live With (1964), Rockwell is widely-known as the most popular commercial artist of the mid-20th century. With a realistic style, warm-hearted humor, and surprising poignancy, Rockwell’s works continue to be some of the most significant art pieces in American history. 

Commissioned by The Saturday Evening Post in 1916, Rockwell created 323 magazine covers over his 47-year tenure. These iconic images included the President Roosevelt-inspired series The Four Freedoms. Each Freedom illustration was showcased on the magazine’s cover and gained such widespread success that the national tour of the pictures raised more than $130 million toward war efforts during World War II. 

A Rockwellian CPA

Like all forms of everyday life, the CPA was not immune to the Rockwellian treatment. In 1924, six years after the end of World War I and five years before the Great Depression, Norman Rockwell painted CPA (Daydreaming Bookkeeper)—a classic depiction of the unsung accountant hero drifting off into a land of riveting maritime adventure.

CPA (Daydreaming Bookkeeper), 1924

Image Credit: Norman Rockwell Museum

Little did Rockwell know that in 2019 his illustration would be just as relevant as it was in 1924.

The Bookkeeper Conundrum: Bored or Just Daydreaming?

A question that captivates finance teams, art history connoisseurs, and psychologists alike—is our accountant hero bored or just daydreaming?

According to an article written by Peter Toohey in Psychology Today, we can use Paul-César Helleu’s painting Daydream (1901) as a base of determining this very debate. As Toohey indicates, Helleu’s rules are a bit antiquated but necessary for the sake of analysis. According to Toohey, the subject of the work is daydreaming if they have these six characteristics:

  • A young woman
  • Reasonably well off 
  • Resting on a chair or resting against something
  • Propping their chin in the palm of their hand
  • Gazing off into the near distance
  • Not offensive

In the case of Rockwell’s Daydreaming Bookkeeper, these rules don’t necessarily apply–or do they

Toohey agrees that there are fundamental similarities and differences between Rockwell’s painting and the Helleu Rules of daydreaming. Still, one glaring issue remains—neither Helleu nor Toohey considered the work that the subject was doing. 

For us in the finance field, we know the truth.

     The Case For Bored

Admit it–there are some pretty menial, mind-numbing tasks associated with the art of accounting. Take Accounts Payable (AP), for example. Back in 1924, every single journal and ledger entry was collected manually—crunching numbers for hours-on-end would cause anyone to actively re-direct their attention to a sea-faring fantasy.

     The Case For Daydreaming

With “adventure” behind him, there is no question that the subject is gazing off into the near distance. Clearly, the work in front of him is not captivating his mind, allowing for fanciful imaginings to provide the needed stimulation. Guaranteed, if the subject were focusing on more compelling initiatives, such as analyzing data and high-level business strategy, his mind would not stray. 

Modern Finance and the Evolving Role of the CPA

The entire accounting profession has evolved rapidly over the past decade due to the growth of new technologies that are built to enhance and optimize productivity

Technology tools, like Accounts Payable Automation, have revolutionized the management of the accounting function. With Robotics Process Automation (RPA) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), many of the repetitive, yet complex, tasks, such as manual data entry, have been fully automated. With extreme precision and accuracy, these technology solutions reduce labor costs and increase overall efficiency.

In contrast to Rockwell’s Daydreamer, the burden of manual work does not have to affect today’s CPAs. Efficient automation has streamlined many of these previously burdensome tasks, and the role of today’s accountants has evolved into that of a financial advisor.

This technological shift means accountants must learn new skill-sets, or enhance their knowledge of current ones. Today, when CPA firms look for new talent, they’re looking for individuals who can provide actionable financial insights while navigating today’s emerging tech.

The Final Verdict?

We may never know if Rockwell meant for his CPA to come across as bored or daydreaming, but we do know that accountants today have the right tools they need to focus on the work that matters. The greatest “adventure” for the modern CPA is being a trusted partner and moving their clients toward success.

What do you think? Share this article on LinkedIn and let us know if Norman Rockwell’s CPA is bored or daydreaming—the first 25 people who share will receive a free print of CPA (Daydreaming Bookkeeper).