Saturday, August 26, 2023


    Critics have studied Norman Rockwell's work from many perspectives, but no one has analyzed Rockwell's role as a vehicle for vengeful gods dispensing karma. 
    Behold the gods at work:

    • In 1994, a wealthy couple bought a painting by Norman Rockwell.  The couple spent a fortune because they admired Rockwell's talent and bonded with the painting which had "all the humor and artistic quality that Rockwell created in... his works.”  Decades later, the couple discovered the painting was not by Rockwell but by illustrator Harold Anderson.  Suddenly the painting's qualities disappeared in their eyes.  The humiliated couple filed a lawsuit blaming the seller for not recognizing that the painting was an “open and obvious” forgery.


    • In the 1950s Norman Rockwell's boss, the art director of The Saturday Evening Post, pressured Rockwell to give him several original paintings as a "gift" for the art director's personal collection.  When Rockwell mustered the courage to ask for his paintings back, he received no reply. Other artists working for The Post complained that they were similarly pressured to "donate" their originals in order to stay on the art director's good side when he handed out new assignments. In this way, the art director amassed an art collection worth millions.   He left that collection to his sons, thinking it would put them on easy street.  

    However, the inheritance turned out to be a curse. The sons bitterly squabbled over the paintings for the next 30 years.  One was accused of manipulating his father to screw his brothers out of the art.  Other brothers filed lawsuits claiming the father was mentally incompetent.  The brothers accused each other of theft, misconduct, civil violations, liability for damages, etc. They sued each other again and again.  By the time they had exhausted themselves and settled their feud, their lives were mostly over and their family was in tatters.


    • In 1943, Rockwell created four pictures about people waiting to see President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Rockwell admired Roosevelt and gave the pictures to Roosevelt's press secretary.  For many years they hung on the walls of the White House to entertain the public.  Then in 2017, descendants of Roosevelt's press secretary learned of the pictures and claimed they properly belonged to the family.  Family members began fighting amongst themselves over who owned the pictures and who had authority to donate them to the White House.  The newspapers noted that in the years of lawsuits that followed, the family tore itself apart over the art. 

    Rockwell was a thin, soft spoken man who lived for his art.  He wasn't always good at defending his own interests.  A casual observer might be forgiven for concluding that Rockwell was exploited by aggressive profiteers who saw an opportunity to feed on his talent and sacrifices. 

    Rockwell may have missed out on some of the money but ask yourself: which side ended up better off?  Which side offered a more meaningful existence?  

    It seems the wrathful gods occasionally place artistic talent on earth as glittering bait to lure and trap the unworthy-- those who, lacking talent to make art, see only opportunities to exploit or profit from those who can.  


    Puneet said...

    Karma indeed comes to bite back. Thanks for sharing this.

    Anonymous said...

    The first example doesn't really seem to fit the theme. First, the praise for the painting comes from the original expert appraisal, not the owners, and the "obvious forgery" alleged in the lawsuit relates to the signature, where an imitation of Rockwell's signature had been painted over the original one, which should have been obvious to a competent professional upon close examination—but quite conceivably not to a layperson.

    However much the owners enjoyed the piece as a work of art, it seems fair to sue the sellers and appraiser when it was sold for a much higher price than it would otherwise command (and they had it insured for that inflated valuation), based on a forged signature backed by a mistaken and incompetent (if not outright fraudulent) authentication.

    It appears that the owners lost the suit, however.

    Seg said...

    Greed is a terrible thing; even when there is more than enough unearned profit for everyone, each person wants it all for himself.

    Frank Frazetta's kids also fought over his paintings after his wife, Ellie, passed away, and while Frank himself was still alive but in ill health. His eldest son actually broke through the door of the Frazetta museum with a backhoe and stole 90 paintings, valued at $20 million. Fortunately for the family, they seem to have worked things out before Frank passed away.

    David Apatoff said...

    Anonymous-- Thanks for taking time to learn more about the story. I was tempted to identify the wealthy couple but felt I wasn't an authorized agent of karma who could punish them further.

    You're correct, the quote about the "humor and quality" of the painting came from their paid consultant who persuaded the couple to buy the painting. Woe unto those claim they love and appreciate art but need a consultant to tell them what they should like. And I agree with you that if we view this as a purely commercial transaction, the couple was defrauded. But what that means is that when they looked at and enjoyed the painting every day for years, what they were really enjoying was the signature and not the art. They didn't understand or care about what the signature was supposed to stand for. And for that reason, I think they deserve whatever they got. Karma!

    Puneet-- Well it certainly makes one feel better about the times when scoundrels seem, on the surface, to prevail.

    Seg-- Agreed!

    Movieac said...

    I’m no Rockwell expert but it didn’t look like a Rockwell to me. Sorry is reminiscent of the Don Trachte forgery.

    Movieac said...

    “Story” not “sorry”.

    chris bennett said...

    First, thanks David for such an engaging post to enjoy during my morning coffee.

    "Rockwell may have missed out on some of the profits but ask yourself: which side ended up better off? Which side offered the more meaningful, accomplished life?"

    This seems to me to be the crux of the matter. As an artist when you love what you do it is so very much like the feeling of telling the truth that the two states can be said to be indistinguishable - one feels themselves at the core, participating in the foundation of meaning itself. Sure, Rockwell devised a way to monetize his art, but this was a negotiation between what his heart needed him to do and the utilitarian needs of his bodily well-being without undermining their ontological distinction. The client or purchaser of the work is spared this task, so woe betide them if only their head rather than their heart is in it.

    Anonymous said...

    > Woe unto those claim they love and appreciate art but need a consultant to tell them what they should like.

    In the reporting I've seen, there is nothing to indicate that this was the case here. The sellers commissioned an appraisal to authenticate the art, which included the assessment as part of its argument for its authenticity. That does not mean that the buyers relied on this assessment for their own response to the work. (From what I read, it seems the couple had already agreed to buy the painting before the report; its purpose was authentication, in order to establish the value/price of the painting, not to persuade them of its artistic merits.)

    > And I agree with you that if we view this as a purely commercial transaction, the couple was defrauded. But what that means is that when they looked at and enjoyed the painting every day for years, what they were really enjoying was the signature and not the art.

    David, I cannot agree with you. People are more complicated than your strict binary suggests, and personal associations naturally color enjoyment. They may have honestly appreciated the piece as a work of art in itself, irrespective of the artist, but once they learned that it was the means of defrauding them of a large sum of money, and very likely humiliating them to their social circle, is it any wonder that their enjoyment soured?

    Would you equally blame someone whose fondest possession was a piece of art given to them as a present by a lover, if they wanted to get rid of it after learning that the lover had cheated on them throughout their relationship?

    By your logic, is anyone who has bought an artwork obliged to be perfectly content if they discover that the work is a forgery, since provenance is irrelevant and only the appearance of the piece matters?

    Anonymous said...

    You left out the story about the dealer who got caught selling a stolen Rockwell to Steven Spielberg.

    David Apatoff said...

    Movieac-- Yes the Don Trachte forgery was one of the wildest of the contortions that people went through in Rockwell's wake. Like you, I don't think I'd have any trouble figuring out that Anderson's painting was not by Rockwell; the fact that the buyers had such poor vision is part of what earns them a spot on this honor roll.

    chris bennett-- Thanks, glad to hear it. Yes, in the end I agree that's the crux of the matter, and it's why artists put up with all of the intolerable economic and working conditions they must tolerate. It'a also why fabulously wealthy investment bankers envy artists and try to rub up against them and borrow their authenticity and truth (but from a safe distance and without paying the dues).

    Anonymous I-- Obviously art is a multi-faceted experience and it would probably be impossible to find a 100% pure strain of any of those facets-- visual form, concept, economics, status, emotional content-- they're all interwoven. Yet, I have no trouble asserting that some of those facets are more valuable than others. Art that enriches our lives in a meaningful way, that expands our vision and sensitizes our feelings and enhances our imagination will always get a higher score from me than art that creates pride in ownership or the contentment of money well invested.

    Sometimes binary distinctions are useful analytical tools. Economists distinguish between property that is valuable because of its inherent quality, and property that is valued simply because other people can't have it. In graduate school this second type of property is called "positional goods."

    In my view, people who purchase art not for the pleasure they derive from its inherent qualities as they walk past it on the wall every day, but rather for its provenance, collectibility, economic value-- those people are always at the mercy of the casino. The market may turn on them, the provenance could be wrong, signatures could be forged. But as long as you relate to art for the thrill of its inherent qualities, it will never betray or disappoint you.

    Anonymous said...

    The overinflation of certain corners of the art market can also leave buyers and dealers with egg on their face when the bubble bursts, but sometimes the former in this case are entirely innocent. Also messes things up for living artists who then can hardly shift pieces for more than a couple of hundred due to buyer's soreness after experience elsewhere. C'est la vie.

    squeen said...

    With regards to the final sentiment, the only fly in the ointment is that I read somewhere that Rockwell had many regrets with the amount of work he slavishly devoted himself during his life to produce his art.

    Enjoying one's work can be beautiful, but it also comes at a price.

    todd Zalewski said...

    Wonderful article. I like the bit about the art director keeping an illustrator's work.
    In the late 90's to early 2000's I was doing a lot of work for kid's magazines. I didn't realize it at the time, but when the art director asked if they could "buy" the art that I did just for them what I really was supposed to do was "give" them that artwork!! Even after many assignments up to that point and even though they were so lavish in their praise of the piece (that they wanted to purchase it!) I never got another assignment after making them pay for the art! My bad.

    Anonymous said...

    Todd - them bad !!!

    Movieac said...

    In your last column about AI you mentioned downloading some. Looking forward to seeing them.

    Richard said...
    This comment has been removed by the author.
    Bet said...

    Thanks for your dedication to helping others understand this topic

    Anonymous said...

    Tomer Hanuka on Twitter/X last week:

    "Dear @midjourney

    You’re killing me.
    Your model has been using my work+name for over 10k times, and that’s just the public forums. Can you remove my work and block my name from your generator? I’m sure you understand how deeply unethical this situation is."