A Puzzling Mystery at
The Norman Rockwell Museum
One of the great illustrator's
masterpieces is exhibitedor is it?
Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge, Massachusetts
is my favorite museum. It uniquely presents the
work of a single artist, and it accomplishes its
mission brilliantly. It is a joyous place, set
handsomely in the lush Berkshire Mountains. The
place radiates the warmth, optimism and humor
of the great artist it showcases. Tourist buses
disgorge an endless stream of visitors, who wander
through the galleries with genuine smiles on their
faces. People have a good time at the Museum.
Whatever your mood upon entering, the visitor
to the Norman Rockwell Museum is invariably uplifted
and charmed by the experience. The familiar paintings
are presented in a world-class, highly professional
manner by the skilled and experienced staff. Which
makes the following story a genuine mystery.
Norman Rockwell, 1894
Photo © 1978 by Leon Kuzmanoff
In the summer of 2003, the Museum mounted a
handsome exhibition entitled Freedom: Norman
Rockwell's Vermont Years, presenting the
work of Norman Rockwell produced during the
time he lived in Arlington, Vermont. This period
(1939 - 1953) included many of the artist's
greatest works, including the world-renowned
Four Freedoms. Many Rockwell fans recall
the memorable painting Breaking Home Ties,
which depicts a weathered rancher waiting at
a rural railroad station to send his son away
Home Ties by Norman Rockwell
Cover Illustration, The Saturday Evening
Post, September 25, 1954
Image my puzzlement, when visiting the exhibition
for the first time and confronting the large
canvas labeled Breaking Home Ties, I
realized at once that the painting before me
was not by Norman Rockwell.
Hanging there on the exhibition wall, bearing
a Museum label announcing it as Norman Rockwell's
Breaking Home Ties, was what appeared
to me to be a third-rate replica of the original.
Even a casual observer could see the difference,
comparing the exhibited painting with the superb
reproductions of the Rockwell original in the
Museum shop immediately adjoining the gallery.
What was going on here? What was a world-class
museum doing showing an inferior replica, proclaiming
it to be the original? Later on in the summer,
a Museum bulletin insisted that the exhibited
painting had been "recently restored,"
and was being exhibited for "the first
time in forty years."
As a devoted fan of the work of Norman Rockwell,
and an avid enthusiast of the Norman Rockwell
Museum, I immediately wrote the first of what
would eventually be a total of seven letters
to the Museum's administration, askingas
a concerned Museum member and boosterfor
clarification. How could the painting be termed
a "restoration" when literally every
square inch of the painting was entirely new.
As of the date of this writing (February 2004)
none of my letters have been answered. Twice
I received notes from lower-level staffers,
assuring me that my inquiries would be responded
to by the Museum director. No such response
has been forthcoming.
Detail from the original
Norman Rockwell painting
Detail from the painting exhibited
2003 - 2006
at the Norman Rockwell Museum.
Perhaps most puzzling of all is the fact that
the Museum is distributing copies of the inferior
replica to publications such as American
Art Review, who reproduced it in their Fall
2003 edition. The Museum of course has reproductions
available of the brilliant original. Why are
they now publicizing the replica, even to the
point of reproducing it in color on the cover
of the Museum's annual report?
Why is the Museum refusing to respond to scholarly
inquiries? What is going on? If the explanation
is that Norman Rockwell's original of Breaking
Home Ties was somehow badly damaged or deteriorated,
requiring a total repainting, why is this not
explained? Who is the artist responsible for
the "restoration?" If the exhibited
painting is a replica, where is the great original?
Most of all, why does the Museum insist that
this is the painting which appeared on the cover
of the Saturday Evening Post, September 25,
1954which it most assuredly is not.
Mystery Is Solved
The mystery at the Norman Rockwell Museum has
been solved. On April 6, 2006, the New York
Times, in a front-page story, announced
that the original of Rockwells Breaking
Home Ties had been discovered in an unoccupied
house in Vermont, hidden behind a false wall.
The original painting is in good condition,
and has been placed on exhibit at the museum,
alongside the fake. The entire story can be
read on the museums website at www.nrm.org/page109.
I can report that the museum very graciously
contacted us at once, invited Elizabeth and
me to visit the museum to see the newly-discovered
painting, and to lunch with the museums
director. Apparently, alone among the many who
voiced opinions regarding the mystery (including
a number of notable experts), this
writer was the only commentator to remain firm
in the contention that the painting on exhibit
at the museum for nearly three years was a fake*.
A very gracious and sincere apology was offered
for the three years of ignoring my letters,
an apology which was received with understanding
and sympathy, given the extraordinary circumstances
as described in the museums posted account.
The only part of the museums account
with which I must continue to take exception
is the description of the fraudulent painting
as an expertly crafted copy and
astonishing. To our eye it does
not seem either expert or astonishing.
The astonishing part is that so many curators
and experts grasped at so many explanations,
including effects of time, severe
climate changes, badly cleaned,
etc., when in reality the painting on exhibit
was a total, rather clumsy repainting.
We are delighted that the brilliant original
has been found and is on exhibit for all to
enjoy. The incident is now closed.
John Howard Sanden
*This writer is the observer mentioned in paragraph
12 of the museums account, as having characterized
the exhibited painting as a third-rate