Saturday, April 8, 2006

The Unreal Rockwell

The unreal Rockwell
In art, as in philosophy and politics, we’re often presented with the question “What is real?”.

For years experts have been mystified by inconsistencies in one of Norman Rockwell’s most widely recognized illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post, a painting known as Breaking Home Ties (above, left… or is it right?).

The painting originally appeared on the cover of the Post in September of 1954. The original was purchased in 1960 by Donald Trachte Sr, Rockwell’s friend and neighbor, who was himself an illustrator, painter, amateur architect, astronomer and inventor. Trachte was also a cartoonist and drew the Henry Sunday newspaper strips after Carl Anderson’s death in 1948. (John Liney took over the dailies.) It is Trachte’s version of the Henry Sundays that are reprinted in papers today.

Trachte had loaned the Rockwell out for exhibit for years, but over time there was more and more concern that the painting had been damaged in some way, perhaps by an overzealous restorer or cleaner trying to cover unintentional damage at a museum, or even that the painting had been stolen or replaced with a forgery. Those who knew Rockwell’s work well could see that this was just not up to his normal standards, particularly in terms of color and the appearance of the paint in many areas. The painting’s original provenance was unquestionable; it was widely known that Rockwell had sold the painting to Trachte, but the questions remained about how it had come to its current state.

Trachte Sr. died in 2005 and it turns out that the Rockwell on display was indeed a forgery (above, right,… or is it left?), painted by Trachte himself. This was revealed when Trachte’s sons discovered the original (above, left… no, right) in a secret compartment behind a bookcase in the family home.

Donald Trachte Jr., in an interview on NPR yesterday, said that their father had given them no indication that the painting on display was a forgery (or even that he was capable of painting at that level), or that the original was hidden in their house. There is some speculation that the existence of the forgery was related to the divorce of Trachte Sr. and his wife, but no one really knows.

You can see the two paintings in larger reproduction on NPR’s site. There is a nice detailed account on the Berkshire Eagle, and the originals of both paintings are currently on view at The Norman Rockwell Museum.

As for the little guessing game I’ve been playing with you, go to this post’s comment page for the answer.

15 thoughts on “The Unreal Rockwell

  1. Charley Parker Post author

    Did you guess right? The image on the right is Rockwell’s original, the one on the left, Trachte Sr.’s surprising copy. Look in particular at the boy’s eager expression and the liveliness of his eyes.

  2. Charley Parker Post author

    I agree that Rockwell would fit nicely in the line of genre painters (never thought of it that way – very interesting notion), but I refuse to remove the tag “Illustrator” because the elitist art establishment uses it as a pejorative. To do so gives their position credence (that “illustration” is somehow inherently inferior to “fine art”), and removing those ill-considered prejudices is at the core of what I want to do with lines and colors.

    I would rather elevate the term “illustrator” than try to elevate Rockwell by avoiding use of the term and playing along with the art establishment snobbery that has ingrained that wrong-headed notion in our culture.

    (Sorry to tag the rant on your insightful comment, Jeff, but you left me an irresistible platform for a pet peeve. )

    Jeff’s post contains some nice selections of genre painting from Jan Steen, Gerard Terborch and Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (who I am particularly fond of) next to Rockwell’s The Homecoming Marine, and it does, indeed, suggest a continuity of theme and purpose.

  3. darlene blackman

    i found the original to be much more sophisticated in detail than the copy…the man’s shirt, his hands
    …….the ground..
    i guessed correctly, but wasn’t sure that the “style of detail” was HIS style.

  4. Don Trachte

    I was just reading the comments above about the sophistication of the original versus the replica. I spent many nights with a magnifying glass looking at the tear sheet and pictures of the replica. Honestly, I counted every stone, every wisker every piece of wood and rust on the truck, and my Dad seemed to match each area. I feel that he deliberately changed the expression on the boys face so that the picture wouldn’t be sold commercially. I also noticed the old mans clothing was a softer blue and not so washed out. The pant cuffs had a slight difference and the reflection of the lantern was off slightly. But all these things were still not enough to make me believe that my Dad had actually forged the painting until we found the original that afternoon.

  5. Charley Parker Post author

    Don,

    Thanks for your comments. I think it’s amazing that your Dad could paint at that level without using that ability in more obvious commercial applications. Is there a selection of his work available online anywhere?

    We can see some of his delightful Henry Sundays by going to the King Features Henry page and choosing Sundays from the list, but I haven’t found much about his illustration or other work.

  6. mary pat barton

    I am interested in contacting the family of don trachte. I met their dad in 1970 – july ?? : He painted a picture with my brother as the class model while taking a art class in north truro, mass.
    He was a friend and classmate of my uncle,an artist also named Lee moffitt –
    that is how my 12 year old brother became the model. He was wearing a white and blue wide stripe shirt , jean shorts , cowboy hat and held a fishing pole. He had Wild long almost afro style RED hair, that wasn’t very well contained under the hat. that was why all the artist wanted him to model,My brother said that mr. trachte’s painting was really special- so detailed and alive. We even had dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house after the modeling session with mr. trachte and some of the artists – He was a very kind and funny man /He gave my brother a henry cartoon of henry drawing my brother in his pose.with a Thank you note.
    So since I have so many wonderful memories but not even a photo of that time I was wondering if the painting still exsisted ?? and if it could be bought or even just get a copy of it for ourselfs. Thanks mpmcc44 “at” hotmail.com

  7. Keith

    Thinking about it, my first reaction was how could you not tell the difference. Looking at them side by side, though, is the only way to be able to tell the difference.

    Other than a few minor differences in some shapes and colors, they are virtually identical. A master forgery, indeed!

    Thanks for the perspective,
    Keith

  8. Errol D. Alexander

    What was most interesting was the other eight paintings that Mr. Tachte had stowed away with the Rockwell’s Breaking Home Ties. One was by Gene Pelham, famous for the Country move painting done in most white;Mead Schaffer, the illustrator for a Moby Dick book and a model for Rockwell;George Hughes, who did the famous Cowboy cover (a cowboy in full gear surrounding by a bunch of admiring children) for Saturday Evening Post in 1950, Gene Pelham and Wallace Beech Humphrey..most were residents in New Rochelle with Don Trachte and Rockwell.

    However the key to “Breaking Home Ties” to me is its title reflecting one of those times that people grow apart from their parents often called cutting the ties, similar to what one does at a birth. When Jason Robart, who looks like the father, did a movie in 1987 using the same title, it states that the missing mother from the picture was was dying and could not travel with them for his trip away. Great picture by a great artist who can tell a complex story at one glance. Errol D. Alexander, Arrowhead Institute

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