I recently was going through our family computer files and found this arresting painting of a little girl that my grandfather did circa 1922 that I had never seen before. It took my breath away. I couldn’t find this image in Norman Rockwell: A Definitive Catalogue by Laurie Norton Moffatt. I posted it on my Facebook page on January 1, 2015, not knowing its title, date, or story. From those who commented, I found out that it is titled Young Valedictorian and was most likely painted for the remarkable Edison Mazda series (1920–1927). I believe it was rejected by Edison Mazda, a division of General Electric, because it does not show the source of the ethereal and dramatic light. It illuminates the little girl in such a way that it recalls Rembrandt, one of my grandfather’s guiding beacons.
It reveals a young girl at her graduation — an initiation, a passage — a Holy Communion of sorts. The elders behind her appear somewhat pleased but are not quite present, a bit distracted. She, on the other hand, is very much present and standing in her newfound power, on the cusp of the next unknown chapter in her life. She stands at the edge of the stage. She holds the symbol of her knowledge in her hands, but she is much more than her diploma. My grandfather painted this around the time that women won the right to vote. She seems to stand for this new, exciting chapter in every girl’s and woman’s life. Note the extraordinary care Rockwell took with the individual ruffles in her dress, the diffused light on her face, the glorious light shining down on her expansive bow, turning it into a crown … the light gently hitting the top of the globe beside her. The world of possibility is hers.
This painting is on display at the National Museum of American Illustration, run by Judy and Lawrence Cutler, a wonderful museum in one those classic mansions from another era in Newport, Rhode Island. You will find Parrish, Leyendecker, Rockwell, Pyle, among others there. I spoke with Ms. Cutler in my quest to find out more about the mysterious painting. It may be titled Young Valedictorian, but my grandfather never titled his paintings, the titles came later, thought up by editors, etc. It is one of the few works of Rockwell’s to apparently remain unpublished; that is why it is so unknown. A spring drive down to Rhode Island may be in order.
Warmest wishes. As always.