A Rockwell Painting Will Raise Millions for an American Legion Post

In a turn of events that could only be described as “Rockwellian,” a painting of a war veteran will be auctioned to support war veterans.

American GI Willie Gillis sharing a Thanksgiving meal with his mother while on leave.

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Note: This painting sold at auction on November 5, 2021, for $3.6 million.

Norman Rockwell always wanted to be recognized as an artist instead of an illustrator. And if you define an artist as someone who creates a famous, beloved, and valuable piece of art, that would certainly describe him and his work.

On Friday, November 5, an auction should once again confirm his “artist” status. Heritage Auctions will be taking bids for his Saturday Evening Post cover of November 24, 1945, “Home for Thanksgiving.” It is expected to fetch at least $4 million. The story of what the proceeds of the sale will be used for could itself be the subject of a Norman Rockwell painting.

American GI Willie Gillis sharing a Thanksgiving meal with his mother while on leave.
“Home for Thanksgiving” by Norman Rockwell (©SEPS)

Back in the 1950s, when American Legion Post 193 in Winchendon, Massachusetts was erecting a new building, an art collector donated the painting to help the Legionnaires finance the construction. It wasn’t sold, though. Instead it was hung in a hallway where, for decades, members of the American Legion Post assumed it was simply a good reproduction. Then, one day, a visitor offered to buy it for $500. Alerted to its possible value, the Legion had it examined by experts at the Norman Rockwell Museum, who revealed it was an original Rockwell.

In the 50 years since the revelation, the painting has been on loan to the museum. Now it is being auctioned to enable Post 193 to pay for long-delayed repairs of their building.

“Rockwell is the great American storyteller,” says Aviva Lehmann, vice president and director of American art for Heritage Auctions, which is holding the auction. “He resonates with so many Americans, whether they know art or not. His paintings symbolize everything that’s best about our country. They’re timeless representations of family, security, and comfort.”

When “Home for Thanksgiving” appeared on The Saturday Evening Post’s cover, she says, it would have resonated with many Americans, reminding them of the hard won peace, the reuniting of families, and the reassuring return of the holidays.

“Rockwell was painting at a time when abstract and expressionist art was gaining prominence,” she says. “He could have painted in any style he wanted, but he felt a responsibility to document America in ways that would reach all its people.

“He was the great unifier.”

Rockwell’s credentials as an artist are further supported by the choice and positioning of his subjects.

In his original sketch of the cover, neither of the figures’ faces could be fully seen. The son was turned away from the viewer to watch his mother, with her back toward him, sliding the turkey into the oven.

Sketch for Norman Rockwell's "Home for the Holidays" illustration
Early sketch for “Home for Thanksgiving” (courtesy Norman Rockwell Museum)

Fortunately, Rockwell reconsidered. He positioned the figures so we can see their expressions as they share a quiet moment.

When Rockwell looked for models among his Vermont neighbors, he carefully chose faces that would capture the expression he wanted. He found them in Mrs. Alex Hagelberg and her son Dick.

She would have needed little prompting from Rockwell to assume a look of happiness and pride as she gazed at her son. Dick Hagelberg had just come home for Thanksgiving after serving five years in the 9th Army Air Corps, and having flown 65 daylight bombing missions over Germany.

This is one of many covers Rockwell painted during World War II, when he produced The Four Freedoms, Rosie the Riveter, and the Willie Gillis series. It is among the four World War II-era paintings in which he depicted a serviceman’s homecoming.

Covers by Norman Rockwell, featuring American servicemen at home following World War II
Covers from May 26, 1945, September 15, 1945, and October 13, 1945 (©SEPS)

Rockwell would most certainly be pleased to learn that funds from the auction would be used in the service of America’s veterans, whom he so admired.

Featured image: Detail from “Home for Thanksgiving” by Norman Rockwell (©SEPS)

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Comments

  1. I certainly hope the money from the sale will go to provide the long delayed building repairs, and that the money won’t wind up in the pockets of x,y and z crooks running our government and military. Always trillions of dollars available to just give to already rich nations, Wall Street, the American military complex keeping this country in endless wars purely for undeserved, ridiculous profits of themselves.

    Yes, let’s just keep bombing people, many innocent civilians for profit with no discernible threat. Sticking our big noses into other nation’s business where it doesn’t belong, setting up possible retaliation and more bombing justification.

    Then at home, little for our own struggling military and citizens in their darkest hours. Our leaders, on the level of 2 year olds sticking their tongues out at everyone, not to mention the middle finger. If Norman Rockwell was in his prime today, he’d likely be painting very different depictions of our nation today. All of it, as any veil of illusion has been laid bare. He already was in the 1960’s and 70’s. I’m always hoping that some way, some how, our nation can be a melting pot incorporating the the best ideas and solutions many European nations have that work! Where their people aren’t living with constant PTSD on seemingly every front.

    We have to stop hiding behind the crutch phrase ‘we’re the greatest nation in the world’ when we are last, or nearly last on too many things to mention here. That phrase SHOULD be true; that’s the sad part. Shootings, airplane violence? No one knows the reasons why its a pandemic of its own here. It starts at the top! Our broken, nasty, greedy, dysfunctional government “leaders” have set the tone for much of this. Most Americans fortunately are respectful and would never do such things, despite them. Still, they’ve empowered a minority that it only takes to ruin it for the rest of us. Just that small percentage. I hope the money from the Rockwell sale DOES go to where it’s intended. Too bad we have to wonder if it really will, and that veterans even need money from this source at all.

    The ONLY job of our government is to take care of our people as civil servants, not become multi-millionaires being paid by lobbyists and corporations. I know that sounds laughable, and has been for years. It shouldn’t be laughable, and major reform is needed so it isn’t. Something’s got to give sooner than later. I wish this nation would learn its lesson, but doesn’t.

  2. It is so awesome to see the Rockwell paintings of the 1940s again. Well done and thank you. I use them in my lectures on the Homefront WW2

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