Breaking Home Ties first appeared as the cover of The Saturday Evening Post on September 25, 1954 (figure 1). A year later in 1955, it was voted by the magazine’s readers one of their favorite covers of all time. Rockwell painted Breaking Home Ties during a particularly inspired decade in his career. Christopher Finch writes: “The period from the mid-forties until the late fifties was perhaps Rockwell’s time of greatest achievement. His themes had not changed too greatly from the thirties, but they were presented in a fresh and rewarding way. We might say that during these fifteen years or so he realized everything that had hitherto been latent in his work. In his best paintings of this period – paintings such as Breaking Home Ties, Shuffleton’s Barber Shop, and Marriage License – he transcended the category of illustration and produced canvases that can stand out in any company” (Norman Rockwell’s America, 1975, p. 31). The theme of Breaking Home Ties was deeply autobiographical for Rockwell. He wrote: “I was trying to express what a father feels when his son leaves home. Jerry, my oldest son, had enlisted in the Air Force; my younger sons, Tom and Peter, had gone away to school. Whenever I feel an idea strongly, I have trouble painting it. I keep trying to refine it, express it better” (The Norman Rockwell Album, 1961, p. 142). Rockwell began experimenting with the idea of Breaking Home Ties while he lived in Arlington, Vermont, but did not complete the painting until after his move to Stockbridge, Massachusetts in 1953. He worked and reworked the composition with different models, poses and settings before he arrived at the final version. Tom Rockwell briefly filled in for the character of the young man (figure 2) until Rockwell discovered the boy we see depicted today during a 1953 visit to the Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico. Rockwell was a long-time friend of the Boy Scouts of America; his first published magazine cover was in 1913 for Boys’ Life magazine. During his visit, the artist singled out Robert Waldrop, an Eagle Scout and ranch staff member, to pose for the character of the young man (figure 3). Rockwell was specific in his instructions for Waldrop; coaching him on how to appear expectant for the oncoming train, even sitting for photographs himself to achieve the precise angle of the pose he desired. Floyd Bentley, an Arlington farmer and cousin to the Rockwells’ cook Marie Briggs, was eventually “cast” as the father. As evident in the preparatory photographs, Rockwell considered including the mother in the scene (figure 4), though ultimately, he decided on only the father and the son.
Finding the right setting for the intimate scene also proved a challenge. While in Cimarron, Rockwell hired a photographer to take numerous photographs of a run down, rural train station from a variety of vantage points, as well as an old pick-up truck (figure 5). He wrote: “As you can see, I could not decide on the proper setting. None seemed to convey the idea that the boy was leaving home to go to college. By the time I had discarded the third charcoal, I had begun to lose confidence in my original conception…After trying the station platform (figure 6), I returned to the original setting, substituting the trunk and signal lamp for the mailbag, the rail for the edge of the platform” (The Norman Rockwell Album, 1961, p. 142). Peter Rockwell recalled that his father even had trouble determining where to place his signature, first putting it beneath the dog, and then finally deciding on the bottom half of the trunk.
Breaking Home Ties depicts a father and son from a rural ranching community in New Mexico waiting for the next train to take the young man off to his first year of college. Rockwell captures this rite-of-passage experience with his trademark ability to convey an entire narrative in one scene. With relatively few characters and a simple, uncluttered setting, Rockwell creates optimum dramatic impact. The juxtaposition of the father’s and son’s distinctive physical attributes and body language powerfully communicates the generational gap between the Depression-era rancher, with probably little to no formal education, and his wide-eyed, college bound son. The rancher is hunched over with his elbows resting on his knees, his weather-beaten face downcast, angled slightly toward his son. Rockwell captures the father’s weariness, as he holds a match while an unlit cigarette dangles from his lips. His son, alert and fresh-faced, stares with youthful optimism down the train tracks as if gazing into a bright and limitless future. The boy’s large, weathered hands disclose his ranching background and are a visual reminder of the important, albeit fading, link with his father. This physical dialogue is critical as Finch writes: “The boy shares with his father a ruddy complexion, large feet, strong hands. These similarities work against the contrasts to set up a delicate tension which gives the painting its strength” (Norman Rockwell’s America, 1975, pp. 64, 78). The inclusion of the family collie, sweetly resting his or her head on the young man’s knee, reinforces the tenderness of the scene (figure 6).
Finch writes: “Norman Rockwell is a brilliant storyteller within a particular American tradition. What makes his work so effective is that he appears to have shared with millions of other Americans a particular set of assumptions about life in the United States; and he has blended his skills as an illustrator with a wealth of careful observation to bring the consequences of these assumptions to life” (Norman Rockwell’s America, 1975, p. 35). In Breaking Home Ties Rockwell captures the social and cultural “growing pains” occurring in post-World War II America and provides reassurance that traditional American values would persevere through uneasy times. Finch asserts: “Breaking Home Ties is one of the most telling moment in Rockwell’s continuing story of growing up in America” (Norman Rockwell’s America, 1975, p. 78).
On April 6th, 2006, the remarkable story of Norman Rockwell’s Breaking Home Ties broke on the front page of The New York Times revealing that the original painting, not previously known to have been missing, had been found concealed behind a hidden paneled wall in the home of its owner. Unbeknownst to anyone, a replica had been hanging in its place for three years on the wall at the Norman Rockwell Museum. The story was years in the making, and begins in 1949, when Don Trachte, an illustrator best known for the syndicated cartoon ‘Henry,’ moved his family to Arlington, Vermont, an idyllic New England town. There, he befriended Norman Rockwell, who had settled in Arlington in 1939. The two men, along with other noted artists Grandma Moses, Dean Cornwell, John Atherton, Gene Pelham, Mead Schaeffer and George Hughes, formed an artistic coterie and lasting friendships. Trachte and Rockwell were particularly close and Trachte spent hours in Rockwell’s studio, carefully observing the artist at work and familiarizing himself with Rockwell’s technique and materials. Trachte even sat for his friend on several occasions and can be seen as the principal in Rockwell’s Outside the Principal’s Office for which he posed in 1953.
Later that year, Rockwell moved his family to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where he stayed for the remainder of his career. Despite the distance, Trachte and Rockwell maintained their friendship through correspondence and Trachte followed his friend’s career in print, admiring the covers of The Saturday Evening Post. On September 25, 1954, Breaking Home Ties appeared on the cover of The Post and quickly became one of Rockwell’s most popular and memorable covers. A 1955 survey of readers of the magazine named Breaking Home Ties as their second favorite cover in the magazine’s history.
In 1960, the Southern Vermont Art Center held an exhibition of 24 paintings by Norman Rockwell. Don Trachte and his wife Elizabeth attended the exhibition, which included Breaking Home Ties. They purchased the painting from Rockwell for $900 and hung the work proudly in a prominent spot in their living room above the grand piano. The painting quickly became Trachte’s most prized possession and when only a few years later he was offered $35,000, he turned it down. Rockwell, aware of the offer, responded in a letter to his friend, “You must be crazy not to sell it, but I adore your loyalty".
In 1973, Trachte and his wife Elizabeth Markey filed for divorce and went about the difficult task of divvying their assets. Breaking Home Ties, along with seven other paintings by Trachte friends Pelham and Schaeffer, among others, were to be divided in the split. Their settlement arranged for the legal ownership to be passed on to their children Don Jr., Dave, Jon and Marjorie but allowed for Trachte and his ex-wife to retain the right to display them during their lifetime. Ms. Markey took five of the eight paintings to her new home and Trachte kept his beloved Breaking Home Ties on his studio wall, along with three other works.
46 years after the purchase of Breaking Home Ties and 23 years after the divorce of its original owners, a carefully guarded secret was finally exposed through a cumulative series of events. Events began to unfold in 2002 when the Trachte children, in light of their father’s failing health and aware of t he value of the painting, decided to send the painting to the Norman Rockwell Museum primarily for safekeeping. When the painting arrived at the museum in Stockbridge, curators were slightly puzzled by what some perceived as differences between the painting before them and The Post cover image. In particular, the boy’s expression had changed and it lacked the painterly precision usually found in Rockwell’s work. The overall coloration also varied from the cover. The museum discovered an audio taped account from David Wood, the former director of the Norman Rockwell Museum, which mentions that he saw what he thought was the final version of the painting in 1978 and that it had been clumsily restored. Assuaged by the impeccable provenance of the work and this report of possible over cleaning and sloppy conservation, the museum was able to overlook these discrepancies. The painting went on view at the museum in February 2003, the first public viewing of the work in over 25 years.
Despite the variety of plausible explanations provided by top experts and conservators, the visual incongruities also tugged at the Trachte family. These incongruities were compounded by a string of unusual events and discoveries. In late 2005, after Don Trachte’s death in May of that year, the family was contacted by the Illustration House, an auction gallery in New York. They were curating an exhibition of the works of Mead Schaeffer and they were interested in borrowing a work from the Trachte family. When they examined a photograph of the painting (then hanging in Ms. Markey’s home), they questioned its authenticity and declined to include the painting in the exhibition. The questions surrounding the Schaeffer reignited the Trachte children’s lingering doubts regarding their father’s Rockwell. In February 2006, Don Jr. and Dave decided to search for answers in their father’s home, which had remained untouched since his death and had been left to the children in his estate. Dave, an Arlington resident, visited the studio on February 21st. During his visit, he also discovered two nearly identical paintings by George Hughes, suggesting that his father may have replicated the original. He also found two photographs of Breaking Home Ties on the living room wall. The photographs were clearly taken at two different times and revealed distinct variations between the paintings in each image. Following these discoveries, Don and Dave decided to visit the painting in the museum again to compare the painting to the tear sheet from the magazine and to request a second opinion by a conservator. During the second week of March, following Don and Dave’s visit to the museum, the brothers spoke nightly, sharing their observations from the comparison and their own memories of the painting from their childhood. Dave paid another visit to the studio for answers. This next visit revealed a roll of very large canvas as well as an empty custom built box, large enough to hold Breaking Home Ties. On March 13th, the brother’s received word that the conservator’s examination of the painting confirmed that no retouching had occurred. Don and Dave were finally forced to believe what they had hoped not to be true-that the version hanging in the museum was in fact a replica.
On March 16th, Don received an anxious call from his brother Dave, asking him to come to Arlington to visit the family home. Dave had noticed what he thought might be a false wall and that there may be canvases behind the wall. Don Trachte writes, “On my trip down to Arlington I wondered if Dad could really have made a replica, but I couldn't let myself believe it. I didn't think we would find much because I was mentally preparing for a let down. I wondered about the Schaeffer painting as well and for a brief second, wondered if that had been copied. I dismissed the thoughts and decided that we would look and just get a step closer to whether the painting was in the house. Still if we didn't find anything, then maybe a replica had been made and we would never know. Maybe the original was lost!...When we got to the house, Dave showed me the wall and how easily it moved. Then we examined the bookcase and how it went together…We began to slide the wall toward the bookcase. It pulled quite hard, but was movable… I looked in the wall at an angle and told Dave that I saw a flag and that I believed the Rockwell was behind the next wall. We began to move the second wall and as we did we saw the tail of the dog emerge, then the car, and then the boy. We stopped and looked at the boy and knew instantly that this was the original.”
This astonishing discovery made national news and culminated with an exhibition mounted at the Norman Rockwell Museum where Breaking Home Ties and its painted impostor were hung side by side. Also on view were the other five paintings found hidden in the walls of the Trachte home with their nearly exact replicas, on loan from Trachte’s ex-wife. While the motivation behind Don Trachte’s replicas may never be fully uncovered, many have speculated that Breaking Home Ties and the other five paintings were an ex-husband’s clever method of ensuring the paintings’ safeguard from the grasp of his ex-wife. The illustrator himself offered no clues in the years before his death, even when he heard that his version was headed to the museum for exhibition and he made no reference to the switching of the paintings in his will. As such it is a story of chance and luck that has kept this iconic work from being lost forever in its owner’s secret hiding place.
Oil on canvas
Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art; Asheville, North Carolina, Asheville Art Museum; Hagerstown, Maryland, Washington County Museum of Fine Arts; Calgary Canada, Calgary Power Ltd., Cover Designs by Norman Rockwell, June 1955-1957
Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Berkshire Museum, August 1958
Virginia Beach, Virginia, Virginia Beach Convention Center, January 1960
Manchester, Vermont, Southern Vermont Art Center, 1960
Manchester, Vermont, Southern Vermont Art Center, June-July 1962
Moscow; Cairo, Egypt, Gallerie Akhnaton, Exhibit of Economic Achievements of the Soviet Republics, December 1964-January 1965
New York, Bernard Danenberg Galleries, An Exhibition of Major Paintings by Norman Rockwell, October-November 1968
Bennington, Vermont, Bennington Museum, 1978 (replica)
Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Norman Rockwell Museum, Freedom: Norman Rockwell's Vermont Years, June-October 2003 (replica)
44 by 44 in. (111.8 by 111.8 cm)
The Saturday Evening Post, September 25, 1954, illustrated in color on the cover
S. Lane Faison, Jr., Kenneth Stuart and Thomas S. Buechner, The Norman Rockwell Album, New York, 1961, p. 142, illustrated in color p. 143
Thomas S. Buechner, Norman Rockwell: Artist and Illustrator, New York, 1970, p. 487, illustrated
Thomas S. Buechner, Norman Rockwell: A Sixty Year Retrospective, New York, 1972, p. 113, illustrated in color
Christopher Finch, Norman Rockwell's America, New York, 1975, fig. 63, p. 69, illustrated in color
Mary Moline, Norman Rockwell Encyclopedia, A Chronological Catalog of the Artist's Work 1910-1978, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1979, fig. 1-393, p. 81, illustrated
Susan E. Meyer, Norman Rockwell's People, New York, 1981, p. 156, illustrated in color p. 157
Laurie Norton Moffat, Norman Rockwell: A Definitive Catalogue, vol. 1, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, 1986, no. C473, p. 200, illustrated
Maureen Hart Hennessey and Anne Knutson, Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, New York, 1999, illustrated in color p. 136
Donald Trachte, 1960 (acquired directly from the artist)
By descent through the family to the present owners