Three paintings by Norman Rockwell, iconic American painter and former cover artist for The Saturday Evening Post are scheduled for auction at Sotheby’s New York. The sale of these paintings: “Saying Grace,” Nov 24, 1915; “The Gossips,” March 6, 1948; “Walking to Church,” April 4, 1953, will, no doubt, raise the price paid for a Rockwell original to a new, unbelievable level.
But look through a list of the 50 most expensive paintings and you won’t find the name of Norman Rockwell. His works can’t hope to bring in the $100 million prices that collectors have paid for works by Picasso and Van Gogh. For decades, art galleries were dominated by modernist, abstract, and experimental painting. There was little appreciation for paintings that were as understandable and affecting as Rockwell’s. It didn’t help his critical reputation that he was enjoyed by millions of Americans who heartily disliked “modern art.”
In time, though, the critics started to re-evaluate Rockwell. They began to appreciate how much work he put into creating his narrative scenes, choosing the right models, acting out the scene for them–sometimes even providing them with their motivation for the role. It was hard to dismiss his draftsmanship, his narrative skill, his genius in capturing expression, his theatrical sense of staging that, well, just plain worked.
While Rockwell’s technique and dramatic sense are exceptional, they aren’t enough to explain why the commercial value of his paintings has risen astronomically in just 60 years.
Consider this: in the early 1950s, Norman Rockwell donated his painting “A Day In The Life of a Boy,” to an auction sponsored by a local charity. It sold for $5.00. In 1975, the Rockwell Museum of Stockbridge, MA, purchased “The Problem We All Live With,” a 1964 work commissioned by Look magazine, for $35,000. In 2006, Sotheby’s auctioned “Breaking Home Ties,” a Post cover painting from 1954. It had originally been purchased for $900 in 1960. Sotheby’s hoped to raise $4-6 million on the sale. It went for $15.4 million.
The reason they have appreciated so sharply has been their still-growing popularity; the public’s familiarity, affection, and esteem for his paintings have driven up their market value, just as they have for works by Van Gogh and Klimt. All this despite the lingering misconception among many Americans that his wholesome and sentimental images of everyday life in small towns reflected how he saw America. In fact, his realism wasn’t intended to be reality. He always maintained that he was painting life as he would like to see it, not as it was or even could be. Today, his paintings are frequently referred to as “iconic.” This would have surprised Rockwell, but it certainly would have gratified him, for he spent his career hungering for just a little appreciation from the art world.
Sotheby’s expects “Saying Grace” will probably sell for $15 million to $20 million. If the past is anything to judge by, the actual selling price will be even higher.
Here are the three Post covers, with their expected bids.
“Saying Grace” ($15 million to $20 million)
Rockwell told fellow Post artist George Hughes that he got so frustrated with the painting he threw it out his studio window. When Hughes asked the theme, Rockwell described it as centering on several rough-looking fellows watching a woman say grace in a diner. Hughes agreed it would never work. That comment was all it took to get Rockwell started again. He retrieved the painting from the snow and completed it for the Post’s 1951 Thanksgiving issue. He took pains to show, by their expressions, that the other diners were looking at the praying grandmother and child not with scorn but with a respectful curiosity.
“The Gossips” ($6 million to $9 million)
The viewer gets the story line, and the humor, of this cover immediately. But the skill with which Rockwell portrays the faces rewards the viewer, who comes back for a later look. Rockwell (who appears in the denouement as the gossiper’s victim) created this narrative gem of just-plain-folks-sharing-a-bit-of-slander in the same spirit of teasing affection that Frank Capra used so effectively in his films. More than one viewer has walked away from this cover wondering just how juicy that gossip could have been to have traveled so far.
“Walking to Church” ($3 million to $5 million)
Appearing in April, this cover was probably intended to show a family on its way to an Easter morning service. The idea came to Rockwell after he had seen a 300-year-old painting by Vermeer, “The Little Street.” Rockwell wasn’t completely happy with this cover; he felt he should have made the family more realistic and less caricature-like. But he gave the neighborhood deft touches of realism: milk bottles and Sunday papers on the doorstep, debris littering the sidewalk, and an upper-floor window hinting at unglamorous rooms beyond. He painted the pigeons in flight, he said, to imply that the church bells were ringing.
For more on the paintings and the impending sale, see the article in The New York Times.