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.
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.
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.
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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