"To live is to war with trolls." --Ibsen
The brilliance of Norman Rockwell's painting Saying Grace has always been in plain view for anyone of good will and good taste to appreciate, but since it sold at Sotheby's last week for $46 million, art critics are finally able to appreciate it as well.
The sale offers us a propadeutic moment by shining a spotlight on the scoundrels who encircled Rockwell. Such moments are rare, and should not be wasted.
As explained in Deborah Solomon's new biography, Rockwell paid the full artistic price for his painting:
He did only three Post covers that year and Saying Grace ate up months. The illustrator George Hughes remembered a night when Rockwell threw the canvas into the snow in a fit of disgust, only to retrieve it the next morning.Rockwell agonized over his painting; he probably lost money on it, but he was the only one who did.
Saying Grace was one of seven Rockwell paintings in the auction from the "personal collection" of Ken Stuart, who was Art Director of the Saturday Evening Post until 1962. Illustrators who worked for Stuart complained that he leaned on them to "donate" their original art to his personal collection, in order to stay on his good side when he handed out new assignments. Illustrations that Stuart didn't want to keep, he sometimes donated to museums to get the tax deduction.
In today's world, abusing his position of responsibility for personal gain would be considered highly unethical and a conflict of interest. But in the 1950s, because of the lower stature of illustration, artists were largely helpless when art directors, printers and clients embezzled originals. The Post later sued Stuart for walking off with illustrations, but a court ruled that it waited too long to assert its rights.
Stuart left his Rockwell paintings to his three sons, thinking they would benefit from his windfall. Instead, they took to fighting like scorpions in a bottle. Accusations of theft and misconduct flew back and forth as the brothers squabbled and sued each other over the best way to monetize the art.
The owners of the Saturday Evening Post watched the Sotheby's auction with dismay, accusing the Stuarts of being "in it for the money.” However, it turns out that today's Post is no saint either. The magazine responsible for those great Rockwell covers and other imaginative illustrations and stories died in 1969. Its assets were purchased in 1971 by an industrialist who spotted a shrewd way to squeeze additional profits from the corpse of the old magazine. Today's incarnation of the Post is far more aggressive than the original Post at marketing Norman Rockwell key chains, calendars, gift cards, coasters and other knicknacks. It became known for aggressively tracking down and claiming royalties for the use of obscure images from the original Post. In this light, the new Post's indignation about people being "in it for the money" seems comical.
Unfortunately, the war with trolls does not end there. To add insult to injury, during his lifetime Rockwell had to chafe under misguided political and artistic editorial controls. For example, Solomon's biography reveals that in another cover,
[Rockwell] was angry at Stuart for overstepping his bounds and altering a painting without telling him. When Rockwell received an advance copy... of the Post, he was in disbelief. Stuart had taken it upon himself to paint a horse out of the picture.The kind of misconduct described in this blog post only comes to light on rare occasions such as the Sotheby's sale, when it becomes economically worthwhile for someone to expose it.
To his credit, Rockwell focused more on his artistic choices in Saying Grace than on fending off the parasites and scavengers around him. That's part of what enabled him to create such superb, lasting work.