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Why Norman Rockwell’s Christmas Images Excite

The market rediscovered famed illustrator’s images not for what they say but for how they make us see

The holidays in America bring to mind images of the painter Norman Rockwell. Dismissed during much of his lifetime and after as a mere ‘illustrator’ best known for his magazine covers for the Saturday Evening Post, Rockwell’s work has become immensely valuable in a relatively short amount of time. Fifteen years ago, the sale of Rockwell’s second-most popular image, Breaking Home Ties revealed just how valuable when it sold for $15.4 million against a $4 million estimate.   

Last month, Heritage Auction sold Rockwell’s Home for Thanksgiving, a wartime image of a mother preparing Thanksgiving dinner with the help of her serviceman son. The adult son is dressed in uniform but he sits on a ladder-back kitchen chair with his heels hooked on the high front stretcher propping his knees up like the boy he once was. Rockwell’s ability to capture so much, so vividly and so economically is one of the reasons the picture sold for a $4.3 million. Another reason is simply that the American art market has come back to life recently. 

Even with the tumult of the last half decade, American culture remains at the forefront of global culture. Like Andy Warhol, Norman Rockwell’s images have held special appeal around the world, especially the Christmas images

Christmas-themed Rockwell images have landed on the auction block with impact before. In 2007, a Saturday Evening Post cover of Santa Clause seated on a step-ladder plotting out his route on a gigantic globe with red string called Extra Good Boys and Girls from 1939 was sold at Christie’s for $2.169 million. The day before at Sotheby’s, Christmas: Santa Reading Mail from 1935 sold for $657,000. In May of 2018, Little Girl Looking Downstairs at Christmas Party from 1964 sold for $2 million at Sotheby’s. The Christmas Coach from 1930 also sold well in November of 2017 when it made just under a million dollars. A charcoal study for Christmas Homecoming from 1948, one of those quintessential Rockwell images where we see the meaning of the painting in the expressions on the subjects, sold for $800,000 in May 2019. 

Christmas Homecoming, the full-color painting, captures Rockwell’s interest in human emotions, shared holiday bonds gets at something essential Rockwell’s project. Although the magazine cover illustrations seem more photographic and documentary, they are all carefully and thoughtfully composed. Rockwell was informed by the composition of Old Masters but he used the most modern technique available to him, photography. 

“The idea of Rockwell as a storyteller through a single image,” says Phillips Elizabeth Goldberg, an expert in American art who has sold her share of expensive Rockwells, “is particularly powerful today in our age of Instagram.”

Rockwell’s record price came in 2013 when the original painting for his most popular image, Saying Grace from 1951, sold for $46 million at Sotheby’s. Rockwell’s best work, like Saying Grace and Breaking Home Ties, has a Frank Capra-esque, almost cinematic quality. The images appear to be frozen moments or cinematic stills from a panning camera. The meaning often comes in the details. The father in Breaking Home Ties clutching to his own hat and his son’s at the same time. The astonished diner smoking a cigar and while he finishes his coffee and paper staring from the very edge of the frame as an elderly woman and her young charge pray in the midst of a crowded restaurant. 

Shuffleton’s Barbershop from 1950, which the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art bought privately in 2018 for significant price believed to be above $20 million, pulls the viewer in through three visual planes, the storefront’s mullioned windows, the darkened barber shop with burning embers in the stove, and the lighted back room where two and a half figures are visible playing music. 

This oblique approach to showing his subject is what endeared Rockwell to his editors and magazine readers. It’s why his works have been reproduced and riffed upon so often. The images lend themselves to interaction and engagement, to sentimental hopes and wry mockery of human foibles. 

In his best Christmas images, Rockwell does show us an idealized Coca-cola Santa Claus but a young boy discovering a Santa suit in his father’s dresser drawers or a young couple exchanging gifts while their small child looks down from the stairs at his father in a Santa outfit. Because Rockwell illustrated Christmas cards for Hallmark, there’s almost an inexhaustible number of variations on his Christmas themes. 

Rockwell’s eye for detail never extended beyond witticisms. There’s no loneliness or want in Rockwell’s Christmas which may be why his work faced such a significant backlash in the period after the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and 70s. Nevertheless, Rockwell’s ability to place family and social relations above the material gifts of Christmas surely helps explain the enduring appeal. 

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