Norman Rockwell, Breaking Ties, 1954, Sotheby’s
A father and son from a rural community sit waiting for the car or train that will take the young man off to his first year of college. Rockwell captures this rite of passage with his trademark ability to convey an entire narrative in one simple scene.
The pair’s body language is powerful: it communicates the generational gap that divides the Depression-era rancher—who has likely had little to no formal education—from his college-bound son. The father hunches over with his elbows resting on his knees, his weather-beaten and unshaven face downcast and angled slightly towards his son. By contrast, the young man looks with youthful optimism down the tracks impatiently waiting for the train to arrive, for his future to start. The boy’s large and weathered hands, however, disclose his ranching background and are a visual reminder of the important, albeit fading, link with his father and his roots.
The image on the left, a color study for the final painting, offers a compelling glimpse into the great sophistication of Rockwell’s creative and technical process. In the final version, on the right, Rockwell changed the setting to depict the pair sitting on the side of a farm truck, yet the study nevertheless achieves the same poignancy that makes the finished painting so beloved.
The theme was autobiographical for Rockwell: “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”