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Breaking Home Ties — Prelude To A Masterpiece

Critics complained that his work wasn’t serious. He was cornball. He was just a calendar artist. His first artwork to be acquired by a museum went for $100.

  • Rockwell Sketch

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    Photo: IU Eskenazi Art Museum, used with permission from Curtis Licensing.

    The working sketch for the famous magazine cover.

  • Rockwell Painting

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    Photo: Breaking Home Ties, Norman Rockwell, 1954. Used with permission from Curtis Licensing.

    The oil painting that became the beloved magazine cover.

  • Rockwell Sketch Excerpt

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    Photo: Norman Rockwell sketch

    Used with permission of Curtis Licensing.

 

How does an image find its way from  mass media into a museum?  For 40 years, the Indiana University School of Journalism displayed a charcoal sketch that the general public was never supposed to see -  a study for one of the most famous paintings of the 20th century, that was first known as a magazine cover. From 1916 to 1963, the American artist Norman Rockwell created hundreds of detailed paintings for mass distribution as commercial illustrations.

According to Nan Brewer, the Lucienne M. Glaubinger Curator of Works on Paper at the IU Eskenazi Art Museum, Rockwell “is often considered one of the most recognizable artists of all time. But his audience knew his work, not from going into museums. They knew them from the 321 covers he did for the Saturday Evening Post. It was a different venue for art.” The readers of the Saturday Evening Post loved Rockwell’s covers – even though critics complained that his work wasn’t serious.

“He was cornball,” Nan Brewer explains. “He was just a calendar artist. It was actually not until 1952 that his first artwork was acquired by a museum – the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired ‘Town Meeting’ [known as Freedom of Speech, from the series The Four Freedoms] for $100.” What the public never saw was a working sketch of a published cover. Yet for nearly 40 years, visitors to the Dean’s office at the IU School of Journalism were greeted by a large charcoal drawing framed in raw wood … and most of them immediately recognized it – maybe not by name, but by the story it told, and by the emotional punch it delivered.

For 40 years, the Indiana University School of Journalism displayed a charcoal sketch that the general public was never supposed to see.

After all, it was the picture that had been voted the Saturday Evening Post’s second most popular Rockwell cover ever:  Breaking Home Ties. We see a farmer and his son, waiting for the train that will take the son off to college. The contrast between the boy’s clean, eager appearance, dressed in his Sunday best, and his father’s worn work clothes and slumping shoulders, has captured hearts since its first publication in 1954.

The sketch had been with the School of Journalism since 1975, the year the program moved back into Ernie Pyle Hall after a renovation. It wasn’t until the 1990s, as Ernie Pyle Hall underwent another renovation, that somebody called up Sherry Rouse — the IU Curator of Campus Art – and asked her to come over and take a look.

As the Curator of Campus Art, Sherry Rouse has spent more than 20 years looking through offices, hallways and closets on all eight campuses, making an inventory of every single piece of art owned by the University. So far she has logged more than 13 thousand items. But this charcoal sketch was a first.

“I had seen paintings, but I had never seen drawings” by Rockwell, Rouse says. “It was very sophisticated. It was a completed drawing. It’s not ‘sketchy’ at all.”

There is just one person left who knows how the sketch got to the School of Journalism in the first place. Marge Blewett was an administrator with the Journalism School in the 1970s, and retired in 1990. (Disclosure: Marge Blewett is the author’s mother.)

Marge remembers the alumnus who gave the sketch to the school. Ed Von Tress graduated from the IU Journalism program in the early 1920s, and worked for Curtis Publishing in Philadelphia. Curtis was the owner and publisher of the Saturday Evening Post, among other popular magazines like Holiday and Field and Stream. VonTress became the founding publisher of Fortune magazine.

Curtis Publishing was in financial trouble in the 1960s. It was bought out in 1970, by the well-known Indianapolis entrepreneur Beurt SerVaas. Somewhere along the way, there was a failure to communicate.

The story came down to Marge Blewett this way: “When the people left, the day they closed down,” Blewett says, the departing staff believed they were allowed to take anything they liked. “And Ed picked this picture. Now I don’t know why he picked a sketch, when there were paintings by Rockwell and other famous artists all over the walls. But for some reason he picked that sketch.”

No paperwork, nothing official – just a guy walking out of a building with a framed charcoal sketch under his arm.

We turned to the current publisher of the Saturday Evening Post, Joan SerVaas (daughter of Beurt), to get the fuller story. She was just in high school at the time, but she recalled how her father told the tale.

At the time, the art wasn’t that valuable, and people just liked it, and they took it home.

“He got a phone call from New York and Philadelphia,” she says, and the message was, “’People are leaving and taking everything with them – please come back to Philly!’  I think what happened was, people said, ‘[The business is] going down, every man for himself.’ I also think at the time, the art wasn’t that valuable, and people just liked it, and they took it home.”

The SerVaas organization did try to get the lost items back, or at least find out where it all went. But considering the business situation, retrieving art wasn’t a top priority.

“The company at the time was 100 million dollars in debt,” SerVass reveals, “and there were a lot of other, bigger fires to tend to.”

Fortune publisher Ed Von Tress got to keep his Rockwell sketch. He moved back to Bloomington and hung it in his home.

He gave it to the IU Foundation shortly before his death in 1975, with the stipulation that it hang in the  Magazine Classroom of Ernie Pyle Hall, which was being remodeled for the School of Journalism. The painting was delivered to Ernie Pyle Hall in May 1975. But the chaos of re-settling the School of Journalism in new quarters (integrating those mysterious new things called “computer terminals”) meant the Von Tress gift went unnoticed.

“It didn’t get put up and hung on the wall immediately,” Blewett remembers. “I don’t know, it kind of stood around behind a filing cabinet for a while.”

When it was finally brought out for display, it did not go into the Magazine Classroom as Ed Von Tress had wanted. Instead, it hung on a wall in the Dean’s office for the next 40 years – with a small print of the finished magazine cover framed and hung beside it, to show the difference between the sketch and the finished magazine cover.  It was a favorite of four Deans, dozens of staff and hundreds of visitors.

Blewett remembers that Dean Trevor Brown especially liked the picture, as it may have spoken to his own experience of leaving his South African roots for England and America when he earned a spot as a Rhodes Scholar.

Jump forward to the 1990s. Sherry Rouse recognized the sketch’s significance and removed it to the Lilly Library so paper conservator Jim Canary could begin preservation work. She remembers that Canary teared up the moment he saw the picture. Canary remembers that moment, too.

“The first thing [I saw] when I got it unwrapped and had a look at it, was the face of the dog,” he said. “The collie was laying its head on the young boy’s knee, and that just told everything. That was the sadness of leaving, of sort of breaking those ties. And then there are so many other things that start to come up out of the work. You see the wrinkled brow, the hard sort of working life that his father had lived. Then the bright sunny face of his son, looking upward with hope and wonderment, a new world coming ahead of him.”

Curator Nan Brewer agrees that the power of this picture, as with all of Rockwell’s works, is an emotional reality that anyone can relate to.

“His work is a lot more complex when you spend a little more time with it,” she said. “Even a work like this, when you first look at it, you think, ‘Oh, well it’s clearly about the passage of time, the son is going to have a different life, potentially, than his father.’”

However, the more you look at this picture, the more you see. “They’re looking in opposite directions,” Brewer points out. “It has a bit of ambiguity to it, that makes you take a little more time to think a little more deeply about, what is that moment in life like?”

Rockwell’s training in New York art schools was long and rigorous, and included a thorough exposure to art’s power to communicate themes of social justice and politics in the first decades of the 20th century.

“His work has actually been called ‘emotional realism’ – a variation on representational art,” Brewer says. “He said that he wanted to show the America that he saw, but to look at it closely and really observe it – to pick up things that people might have missed.”

He wanted to show the America that he saw, but to look at it closely and really observe it – to pick up things that people might have missed.

To fill his paintings with the details of a moment, Rockwell built the scenes with meticulous care.  Nan Brewer has investigated the archives of the Norman Rockwell Museum of American Illustration, and describes the lengthy process.

“He would begin by doing a rough sketch, a small little thumbnail sketch, that he would present to the Editor at the Saturday Evening Post,” she says. “From that, he would work almost in a cinematic fashion, almost like an art director or director of a movie. He would cast his characters. He would often have his neighbors, friends, family, pose for him. And he would pick costumes. He would pick out the set, the props.”

Brewer adds that the two most active private collectors of Rockwell works today are movie directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Rockwell’s use of photography to capture spontaneous human moments and facial expressions added to the intricate detail.

“In the case of this particular work, he did over 100 photographs,” Brewer says. “The photographs then served as working studies. From those, he would do some crayon drawings. Then he would do these large, almost full-scale charcoal drawings.  A big part of his work was balancing the narrative with the composition, the formal aspects of the artwork. He would then do a color study, and then, finally he would do the final painting. And the painting was then photographed, and the photograph was then reproduced on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.”

Brewer indicates that it is this commitment to honest representation, presented with a rigorous artistic eye, that gives Rockwell’s images their staying power.  “He said he really wanted them to be, not a one-joke gag – he wanted people to instantly understand them,” she says. “In this case, the impact on both a child and, really, more their parent, when they leave home. What we now call the Empty Nest Syndrome.”

That Empty Nest pain was Rockwell’s own, it turns out. Nan Brewer says the early drawings and photographs that led up to the charcoal sketch included a mother, but she eventually vanished.

“[Rockwell] said this particular image really had a personal resonance, because at this moment in time, in 1954, his two younger sons had both gone off to college,” Brewer explains, “and his older son had enlisted in the Air Force. And he said he was going through this struggle of separation from your children. And because he had three sons, he thought, Let’s really look at the father-son relationship.”

That relationship quietly emerged as Rockwell changed details of the setting. “In some of the drawings you see, they were sitting at an actual train station,” Brewer says. “That slowly was removed and now you see them sitting on the running board of a beat-up truck. Even from the drawing here to the cover, it’s a little bit like the ‘One of These Things Is Not Like the Other’ game. You look and say, ‘Whoa!’ In the final painting, there is a trunk, with a lantern and a red sheet of cloth. That’s because this is a whistle stop! There wasn’t a station there! So it’s going to be up to the father to actually be the agent for stopping the train that his son’s going to go away on. And in the drawing, you don’t see the edge of the train track. In the final painting, you see the train track, so it’s clear, that’s the setting.”

The finished painting of Breaking Home Ties had a more bizarre fate.

While the sketch Ed Von Tress lifted from the walls of Curtis Publishing lived comfortably in an academic office, the finished painting, Breaking Home Ties, had a more bizarre fate. After its publication, Rockwell sold the painting to a fellow illustrator, Don Trachte, for $900.00. It was a prized possession in the Trachte house, but when it was finally loaned out to an exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum of American Illustration, something looked funny.

“Some of the curators noticed that it didn’t quite match the image that had been published on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post,” Nan Brewer says. “These [covers] were done with a photo-reproductive process, so it should’ve looked the same.”

At first, the washed-out colors were blamed on over-cleaning by a museum conservator. But after Trachte’s death in 2005, the plot thickened. Trachte’s two sons were going through their father’s papers, and found two photographs of the painting – and they didn’t match, either. Moreover, the sons and the Rockwell Museum determined that no cleaning work had been done on the painting prior to its exhibition.

“They realized there was something amiss,” Brewer goes on. A search of the family home revealed a fake wall, that had concealed the original painting for years.

“The artist, Don Trachte, had actually painted a facsimile that was hung in the place of the original,” Brewer says, “and he hid the painting because of a divorce dispute. He didn’t want it to go to his ex-wife.”

The discovery became an art world scandal, covered in the New York Times. The Trachte sons put the painting up for auction through Sotheby’s, where it sold for $15.4 million dollars.

He managed to get his paintings back from Curtis Publishing, but mostly gave them away to the people who had modeled for him. 

This kind of scandal certainly wasn’t anything Rockwell would have imagined for one of his pictures. He managed to get his paintings back from Curtis Publishing, but mostly gave them away to the people who had modeled for him.

He didn’t imagine having to set up a museum for his work, either, but the Norman Rockwell Museum of American Illustration opened in 1969, in the last decade of Rockwell’s life, displaying hundreds of paintings and thousands of drawings, sketches, and preliminary photographs in a secure yet friendly setting.

When the IU School of Journalism merged into the Media School and prepared to move to Franklin Hall in 2015, administrators knew it was time for the charcoal drawing to be housed and protected properly. It is the first original Rockwell to be included in the Museum’s collections. The final sketch for Breaking Home Ties now hangs in the IU Eskenazi Art Museum’s Gallery of Modern Art.

Joan SerVaas is happy to know this sketch has a safe and permanent home at Indiana University, where it can be seen by the public. “The value [of the picture] is the way people relate to that story, and that man, and his hard hands,” SerVaas says. “He’s looking backwards, the boy’s looking forwards, and the dog’s looking sad! Really an interesting narrative, and that’s why George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are such big fans of Rockwell. Because with one image, he tells these incredible stories.”

Between the sketch and the painting, there is one more crucial difference. In the sketch, the father holds his battered hat in his hands. In the final painting, he holds two hats: his own, and, on top of it, his son’s crisp new fedora. Both of them clasped together in those heavy farmer’s hands – holding on, for as long as he can.

rock500

“Breaking Home Ties,” Norman Rockwell, 1954. Used with permission of Curtis Licensing.

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