Rockwell Forgery Uncovered
April 8, 2006 3:16 PM   Subscribe

For years, art critics were stumped by the inconsistencies in one of Norman Rockwell's most famous paintings for the Saturday Evening Post, Breaking Home Ties. The colors weren't as vibrant as his usual work, nor did the clothes hang correctly. Perhaps most telling, the expression of wistful longing on the face of the protagonist didn't feel right. Two weeks ago, the reasons why became clear. (more inside)
posted by jonson (34 comments total)
The original owner, Donald Trachte, a friend of Rockwell's, purchased the painting in 1960 for $900. When Trachte became embroiled in a bitter divorce dispute, his art collection was, by mutual agreement with his spouse, given to their children. In 2002, Trachte's children approached the Norman Rockwell Museum to house the painting for safe keeping, as it is considered by experts to be one of Rockwell's master works.

Even though the piece has been exhibited several times over the previous decades, no one realized that Trachte, an accomplished artist in his own right, and a student of Rockwell's style and mannerisms, had painted a forgery and hidden the original within the walls of his home. When Trachte passed away in 2005, his children begin the process of going through his assets, and only two weeks ago uncovered the cache of hidden art in their father's home.

Original image is here, forgery is here. Excellent NPR piece on the mystery is here.
posted by jonson at 3:17 PM on April 8, 2006

Good story...
posted by at 3:23 PM on April 8, 2006

They said it on the radio and now that I've seen the two pieces it seems true to me as well: there's just something about the kid's eyes in the forgery that makes him look less excited. A very cool story.
posted by PhatLobley at 3:25 PM on April 8, 2006

there's just something about the kid's eyes in the forgery that makes him look less excited.

Considering it was painted by Don Trachte, I'm surprised the boy didn't have dotted lines shooting out from his eyes.
posted by Oriole Adams at 3:26 PM on April 8, 2006

there's just something about the kid's eyes in the forgery that makes him look less excited.

I think it's the eyelids. The eyelid crease seems a lot darker in the replica, and it's nearly invisible on the original.
posted by luftmensch at 3:34 PM on April 8, 2006

"I have two very rare photographs. One is a picture of Houdini locking his keys in his car. The other is a rare photograph of Norman Rockwell beating up a child." ~ Steven Wright
posted by rodo at 3:46 PM on April 8, 2006

I'm surprised the boy didn't have dotted lines shooting out from his eyes.

posted by quonsar at 3:49 PM on April 8, 2006

I think it's the eyelids.

Eyelids, schmylids. Look at the kid's chin. In the original, he's got a Michael Douglas chin, in the copy, it's completely generic.

Also, look at the tie: the original has his tie noticeably crooked, like a kid who's getting dressed up to look important but who's never done so before. The copy has the tie slightly preserves the crookedness around the neck, but the tie falls in line with the suit, unlike the original where it's off-center.

Anyway, this is an amazing story. Hidden panels, secret lost masterpieces... all we need is some Nazi's and you've got an Indiana Jones movie.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:34 PM on April 8, 2006

The NY Times article about this has a photo of the sliding wall panel, plus a Trachte parody of Breaking Home Ties.
posted by brain_drain at 4:37 PM on April 8, 2006

Having looked at the two, I find it incredible that Trachte so successfully forged an iconic painting, and got away with until after his death. There were suspicions, but most of those laid at the door of a supposed botched restoration. Accomplished artist in his own right indeed.

*Wonders if it's worth prying off the panels at his parents house*

On preview: couldn't agree more odinsdream
posted by ArkhanJG at 4:49 PM on April 8, 2006

all we need is some Nazi's and you've got an Indiana Jones movie.

Interesting that you say that. Steven Spielberg often incorporates Rockwell scenes and images in his films. He is also one of the largest collectors of Rockwell's work. At the Norman Rockwell Museum (Stockbridge, MA) there is a Steven Spielberg gallery.
posted by ericb at 4:50 PM on April 8, 2006

Andy Warhol, Johnny Carson, Richard Nixon and Ross Perot were/are also collectors of his works.
posted by ericb at 4:52 PM on April 8, 2006

"Director Steven Spielberg, who paid homage to a Rockwell tableau in his film Empire of the Sun, adds, 'He dealt with every touchstone in life and made a meal out of it.... He captured us in the blink of an artistic eye.' [source]
posted by ericb at 4:53 PM on April 8, 2006

This is so damn cool. A look at the real painting and the forgery give you an appreciation for Rockwell's sense of proportion. The forgery is completely squashed in relation to the original.

And the mental image of divorcing parents battling over a Norman Rockwell painting is an interesting symbol of the latter half of the 20th century vs. the first half. If you saw it in a movie it'd be almost trite.
posted by BoringPostcards at 6:15 PM on April 8, 2006

If you don't know (I didn't): Don Trachte.
posted by cropshy at 6:40 PM on April 8, 2006

Kudos to Oriole Adams for a great one-liner and to BoringPostcards for an amazingly insightful sociological comment.
posted by spock at 6:51 PM on April 8, 2006

I have dotted lines shooting out from my eyes right now.

Fascinating post.
posted by CynicalKnight at 7:14 PM on April 8, 2006

I thought the forgery was the original, because I thought it was better. It certainly had a better lamp and handkercheif.
posted by Citizen Premier at 7:56 PM on April 8, 2006

I thought I had a forgery in my house once.

Turned out some kid just dropped his basketball into my fish tank.
posted by HTuttle at 8:18 PM on April 8, 2006

Citizen Premier - the face on the young man in the original is expectant, almost optimistic. The face on the forgery is slack, lifeless. It's not about a photorealistic reproduction of still life objects like the lamp or handkerchief, it's about the emotional content of the piece.
posted by jonson at 8:43 PM on April 8, 2006

To me, the forged old dude looks surreally drawn out (especially in his hands), and I think I like that art quality more than Rockwell's. But I'm no art critic--well, I am, but people don't pay me for it.
posted by Citizen Premier at 9:18 PM on April 8, 2006

There does seem to be some magic in Rockwell's art here. In the original the man seems to slump a little heavier, the boy seems to lift himself in expectation with every part of his body, and the dog seems to nudge closer into the boy's leg. But the copy is very faithful and except for the jawline of the boy it's difficult to see any deviation from the original in the contours of these figures. It is as if the original artist made many instinctual choices, all of which reinforced his storytelling but which are so subtle they couldn't be seen or grasped by someone copying.
posted by TimTypeZed at 9:19 PM on April 8, 2006

I esspecially liked this parody that includes a self portrait of Trachte and the fully rendered cartoon character Henry (complete with King Features' copyright.)
posted by maryh at 10:06 PM on April 8, 2006

The forgery certainly does show off some of Rockwell's technique, as an ironic unintended commentary. The hood of the truck and the lamp, in the original, are background noise and more impressionistic, because he wants you to look at the characters. The characters themselves have high-contrast highlights that hte background doesn't. Trachte didn't seem to get that, and they blend into the better-defined ("more correct") background more.

The boy's head, especially, shows the difference between Rockwell's ability to both get proportion right and turn it into a cartoon when he wants. The ear is exaggeratedly large, but i the forgery it comes off much more crude for it.

(It's like signature forgeries -- if they're good, they look too much alike, whereas a real signature varies tremendously, because the person isn't concerned about making it precisely correct. Another corollary is the lie that, once told, must be adhered to and backed up, so police look for that kind of behavior in questioning.)

Of course, none of this is a slight on Trachte, who did amazing work that was able to fool art experts for years. Not to mention his family -- I've known people who treat paintings like relatives. You wonder whether his will has a little surprise that's been spoiled (people often mistakenly believe that a will is read immediately after their death).
posted by dhartung at 10:14 PM on April 8, 2006

You wonder whether his will has a little surprise that's been spoiled (people often mistakenly believe that a will is read immediately after their death).

The article states:
"In February 2006, Dave and Don Trachte began a concerted effort to search for clues about the painting in their father’s home, which had remained untouched since his death almost a year earlier."

Certainly the will would have been read by this time ???
posted by spock at 10:25 PM on April 8, 2006

It also said that in the divorce settlement that the paintings belonged to the children but would be displayed by the parents (7 by her, 1 by him). So any mention in their wills would appear to be unnecessary.

Turns out he had them all, though none on display. It appears he intended to keep them to himself beyond the end of his life.
posted by spock at 10:31 PM on April 8, 2006

My favorite line from the NYTimes story:
Mr. Trachte's ex-wife, Elizabeth Markey, now 98, is apparently unfazed. When her eldest son gave her the news, he said, her response was a wry, "Doesn't surprise me."

Spoken like a true yankee.
posted by maryh at 10:57 PM on April 8, 2006

Whoops. I read the last picture link wrong. I'm starting to think that Rockwell did do a better job. But the forged lamp still is prettier.
posted by Citizen Premier at 11:42 PM on April 8, 2006

Fooled me. I don't see a lot of difference in the A/B test either.

But I am looking at the pictures rather than reading the captions.
posted by Wolof at 5:21 AM on April 9, 2006

Yabbut how did he make the reproductions? My very uninformed understanding of fakes is that a photographic slide is usually made of the original, then projected on a canvas and traced. Theoretically, that would result in a more accurate copy, no? If that if that was the case here and there is noticable deviation from the original, it would suggest that either Trachte wanted somebody to notice these weren't original, or sought to improve on the original, to his eye. I'd suspect the former, but only because that makes for a more interesting story.
posted by SteveInMaine at 8:03 AM on April 9, 2006

what a cool story. the drama! the intrigue!
posted by thekilgore at 8:30 AM on April 9, 2006

Great story.
I want to know how much time passed between when they dedided to get divorced and when they divided up the paintings. It can't be a very long time, and he painted EIGHT (almost) perfect copies in that time? Amazing.
It must have been so cool for those brothers when they discovered the originals behind the wall. I would have laughed my head off.
posted by chococat at 11:01 AM on April 9, 2006

Man, without looking at these in person, all the specultion about which comes off better seems like deference to authority over any real skill. But maybe my monitor's too small.
posted by klangklangston at 11:39 AM on April 9, 2006

Great story, thanks.
posted by soyjoy at 12:05 PM on April 10, 2006

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