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Fantastic Forgery Unveiled

Norman Rockwell knowck-off by TrachteI will feel I have truly made it when someone forges my work.

A high school essay assignment in my Great Issues course received an A- but had the usual corrections for punctuation, style, run-on sentences, etc. That was back when most teachers were not afraid to tell you you were wrong, that there is a right way, and they were smart enough to know the difference. But one of his margin comments, written in his own hand, burned me.

My essay was a story about what I want to be and how I want to affect the world, and was to site someone I admire.

See, I wanted to be an artist. “Just like Norman Rockwell.”

My Great Issues teacher wrote in the margin on my paper “Norman Rockwell was an illustrator, not an artist.”

In the same instant I read that remark, my teacher became as insignificant to me as the A- on my paper. I never cared about, nor do I remember, anything else he taught that semester.

You have to stand in front of a Norman Rockwell original before you dismiss anything about the man, even if you’re inclined to write him off as commercial. In the estimation of virtually every painter I know, Rockwell was an artist’s artist. He was, first and foremost, inarguably the finest, most-skilled of draughtsman (he could ‘drawr’ real good). But the man could handle paint and brushes as masterfully as anyone ever has.

Beyond that, though, was his ability to evoke emotion in millions of people across America and the world, with his art that graced the covers of Saturday Evening Post, countless Boy Scouts of America ads, and even presidential portraits. Not only could he evoke emotion from observers of his work, but he possessed a unique understanding of the subtleties of human expression and body language, and you could see the emotions of his subjects in his work.

Fake Or Good Study?
Well, a replica or forgery of Rockwell’s painting Breaking Family Ties has been hanging in the gallery, or on display in his traveling exhibitions, for decades. And recently the original was discovered in a secret compartment built into the wall of the man who painted the forgery. He was a friend of Rockwell’s, and a collector of his work. He was also an illustrator, himself.

The not-known-to-be-a replica has bothered Norman Rockwell experts for a long time. Even the sons of the man who owned and hid the original, but displayed his own forgery, commented about the eyes of the boy in the replica. There was “just something not-quite-right with them.” Why did Rockwell go back in and “fix this painting” after it had been published? And why did he do it without his usual flare and skill?

In reference to the replica that has been on display, NPR’s online article says:

For decades, the painting’s flaws stumped Rockwell experts. Something about it wasn’t quite right: The colors looked dull; the wrinkles in the clothing didn’t fall quite the right way.

The owner of the painting was Donald Trachte, Sr., a former friend and neighbor of Rockwell. Trachte and his wife bought Breaking Home Ties in 1960, and he kept the painting after they divorced.

It turns out Trachte — who died in 2005 — had painted an almost perfect replica and tucked away the original in a secret compartment behind a bookcase in his home.

In an intereview of one of the sons of the now-deceased forger, it is revealed that the family didn’t even know that their father—who drew the Sunday version Carl Anderson’s cartoon creation Henry from 1932 — 1992—had stowed the painting away, nor that he could even paint with such skill.

Their parents divorced in the early 1970’s, and there is some speculation that maintaining possession of the original may have been a motivation for making a copy. Sounds like a resonable scenario. But his son asserts that he believes his father just wanted to protect the original for his family.

I offer that their dad was motivated more by the lessons that could be learned by copying the work of an artistic genius. If I could paint just like Norman Rockwell, I would be very impressed with my little self. And there are few better ways to learn to paint like the masters than to copy their work.

Calling Trachte’s copy a forgery implies planning, the intent to deceive, and all sorts of libelous things. That hardly seems fair with the known evidence. Calling it a replica has so much more of a positive feel to it. I mean, the man did purchase the original, and several others. The evidence would strongly suggest that Trachte really liked Rockwell’s work. Calling it a copy would be fair, I suppose, but given the high quality and complexity of the image Rockwell painted, I would have to call Trachte’s version amazing.

My hat’s off to the man. Well done!

Compare for yourself: Original | Replica

Listen to the NPR interview using Windows Media Player


  1. I see what you mean about the eyes… In the original, the boy’s eyes are anticipating, v. the forgery, the boy’s eyes look somewhat bored. But regardless, I hope someone dares to forge you someday! Love your work, and how God gifted you!

  2. Thanks for the extensive posting on this, it was wonderful to read your own take on the discovery.

    I heard the original NPR report and thought of you instantly, glad you tracked it down as well.

  3. NEVER HEARD THAT STORY BEFORE. I recognize the original. So, it has to be in some of his books. Or calenders.

    Your friend Morgan has been copied. I remember that one.

  4. I loved this article! It reminded me of when I went to college in Colorado and took an art class from a teacher who seemed to be more interested in teaching his students something about a rebellious movement than teaching art. Finally, a fellow student asked the teacher what he thought about Norman Rockwell? I was flabbergasted! In those days I didn’t know anyone west of the Mississippi had heard of Norman Rockwell. No one at school knew of my family’s relationship with Rockwell or the fact that I grew up in Arlington. The teacher said, “I think Norman Rockwell is a corny old man drawing corny old pictures.” Well, I couldn’t wait to tell my dad and we had a big laugh!

    I also like your insight as to why someone would have pride in copying a great artist’s works. I think you hit it on the head. I do believe my dad would have a lot of satisfaction for what he did, however, I know his personality side would also be embarrassed with all the publicity.

    Don Trachte, Jr.

  5. David,
    thanks for this article you wrote on Norman Rockwell.
    There was a time in the late 60’s early 70’s when Rockwell’s work was scoffed at and if you spilled a glass of wine on the wall during a gallery opening they threw a frame around it and sold it for a ridiculous sum of money! The people who thought, “gee, this is just a wine stain, what the…?” started feeling stupid about art when someone plunked down cash for the thing.
    And so it went. Now Norman Rockwell wasn’t an artist but a ‘mere’ illustrator so his work wasn’t GREAT anymore? Oy.
    Laughable, except it really swayed people’s feelings about his work. Crazy.
    NC Wyeth’s biography mentions over and over again how he suffered being I JUST an illustrator. His work was magnificent and lives on.
    I agree with both you and Don Trachte, Jr, that copying great works gives a literal hands on lesson.
    I really enjoyed reading this!

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