Young Valedictorian

Abigail Rockwell finds meaning in a painting her grandfather created around the same time women had won the right to vote in the United States.

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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.

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Young Valedictorian c. 1922. National Museum of American Illustration collection. © Norman Rockwell Family Agency. All rights reserved.
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Young Valedictorian c. 1922.
National Museum of American Illustration collection.
© Norman Rockwell Family Agency. All rights reserved.

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.


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  1. Hi.Abigail,absolutely love this work.I don’t suppose you know if there is a possibility of buying a print??I have looked on many sites without success.Love young Valedictorian.Many Thanks.

  2. I am so pleased that all of you have enjoyed this unusual painting of Pop’s. It has become one of my favorites. Bob — NR has said that “Rembrandt and Pieter Brueghel are my gods…” He said of Rembrandt, “… It was his love of humanity that made him great.” And you can certainly see the influence, especially in the use of lighting. Thank you all for your enthusiasm and appreciation of my grandfather’s work!

  3. Absolutely lovely. I find this , after all the years of enjoying Rockwells work,to be my favorite. Thanks for sharing. I think it is beautiful !!!!!

  4. I am a published illustrator and writer as well as a licensed counselor and art teacher. I often use the magnificent works of Rockwell to inspire my art students and to help my counseling clients to express their thoughts and feelings that can often be unleashed by discussing one of his works. Thank you for sharing this beautiful and hopeful expression of a young girl’s dreams of the future.

  5. This is yet another remarkable, semi-recent find of your grandfather’s work you’ve really studied every nuance of, and written about in this latest ‘Real Rockwell’ feature.

    Ironically I was looking at some Rembrandt’s not long ago and agree the lighting technique was inspired by the great artist (even though HIS was non-electric.) It appears to be coming down from directly above, highlighting everything you mentioned.

    I’m glad you have the year Rockwell painted this piece, because I would have guessed it to be older than from 1922. The clothing and hairstyle of the man 2nd from the left seems older; the other people harder to tell. The very large bow the girl’s wearing I’ve seen in pictures from the late 1890’s to 1910’s, so ’22 may have been one of the final years they were in style.

    I would absolutely encourage you take that drive to Rhode Island and see these beautiful works of art by Harrison Fisher, James Montgomery Flagg, Stevan Dohanos and more. The entire museum and the grounds are incredible from the link you included. You’ll get a lot out of it; definitely give yourself plenty of time there!


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