Norman Rockwell - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, June 23, 2021 | Phillips

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  • Featured on the December 19, 1918 issue of Life magazine, Norman Rockwell’s My Mother (Soldier with French Woman) captures the zeitgeist of a victorious nation still in the emotional throes of war. Undertaken when Rockwell’s prominence was on the rise with his popular Post covers from 1916, the present work demonstrates the more expressive and painterly execution that characterizes his works through the 1930s, before he incorporated photography into his technical process.


    The present work on the cover of Life, December 19, 1918

    Published two weeks after President Woodrow Wilson departed for the Paris Peace Conference, My Mother (Soldier with French Woman) captures the tensions still felt by a nation whose boys were not yet home. Of the period, Rockwell remarked “everyone in the country is thinking along the same lines, the war penetrates into everyone's life…in 1917 I couldn't read a newspaper without finding an idea for a cover.”i


    [left] Norman Rockwell, A Tribute from France (Soldier and Little French Girl), 1918 [right] Norman Rockwell, Till the Boys Come Home, 1918

    In the present work, Rockwell depicts a Doughboy infantryman, Pvt. Sammy Smith, avidly presenting a photograph of his mother. Rockwell used Sammy Smith, whose first name is visible on the envelope he holds, as the subject of They Remembered Me in the December 22, 1917 issue of Leslie's magazine. The return address is from Philadelphia, and the postmark is dated Jul 4 6 pm 1918. Identified as a French woman in Rockwell’s titling, the woman shown here is wearing traditional French dress of the period—as interpreted by Rockwell’s artistic imagination—and presumably represents the mother figure of a family with whom Sammy was staying in France. Women and girls in similar dress appear in a number of Rockwell's World War I paintings, such as A Tribute from France (Soldier and Little French Girl), which appeared on the August 10, 1918 issue of Judge Magazine. Sammy’s mother, styled with a loosely tied kerchief collar and knowing smile, bears a striking resemblance to Martha Washington.


    [left] Detail of the present work [right] Gilbert Stuart, Martha Washington, 1731. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C.

    As different as these representations of women—and of mothers specifically—are, Rockwell ensured that this was a woman Americans could identify with. She pauses her knitting to view the soldier’s photograph, a pastime that seemingly signified a woman’s anxious anticipation of a loved one’s return. In Till the Boys Come Home (Women Sitting by Edge of Sea) from the August 15, 1918 issue of Life, Rockwell has littered the scene with abandoned knitting projects as the act of waiting, gazing hopelessly out across the ocean, takes precedent. An apt espousal of his storytelling abilities, it is what Rockwell has not presented in the scene, but what the viewer brings to the narrative that belies his reputation as the quintessential storyteller of 20th century American life. Undoubtedly awaiting news of her own child’s return home, Rockwell’s French Woman is positioned as the art historical trope of the mother and child: her lap is at once bereft her own child and supporting “our American boys” overseas.


    [left] Pablo Picasso, Mother and Child, 1921. Art Institute of Chicago, Artwork: © 2021 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York [right] James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, 1871. Musée d'Orsay, Paris

    In his composition, Rockwell both anticipates Pablo Picasso’s classical renditions of Mother and Child in the early 1920s as well as recalls J.M. Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 (The Mother), 1871, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, which became the first American artwork ever purchased by the French state in 1891. Sitting in stark profile and gazing beyond the picture plane, she is the embodiment of patience and dignity, qualities that should characterize a Mother who has sacrificed for her country. And yet, in Rockwell’s revisioning of this iconic portrait, he has subverted Whistler’s own espousal of what art should be and do: “Art should be independent of all clap-trap, should stand alone and appeal to the artistic eye or ear without confounding it with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like.”ii


    My Mother comes to auction from the formidable collection of storied television producers Thomas Miller and Robert Boyett, who found an affinity with Rockwell’s virtuosic knack for visual narrative. The legendary couple behind Miller-Boyett Productions developed some of the most influential and iconic sitcoms in television history—from Happy Days to Laverne & Shirley to Full House. The Rockwell pictures that Mr. Boyett and Mr. Miller, who died earlier this year, collected betray a compelling dialogue between three great American storytellers.


    Thomas Miller and Robert Boyett

    "In each episode of our television shows, we made sure to have characters make some form of human connection. Rockwell did the very same."
    —Robert Boyett

    Not only testifying to the artist’s role as a compelling storyteller of American life, My Mother exemplifies Rockwell’s idiosyncratic style which has become a source of inspiration for countless contemporary artists. “When this last half century is explored by the future, a few paintings will continue to communicate with the same immediacy and veracity that they have today,” Thomas S. Buechner, the former director of the Brooklyn Museum, wrote. “I believe that some of Mr. Rockwell’s will be among them.”iii


    i Tom Rockwell, ed., My Adventures as an Illustrator: The Definitive Edition, New York, 2019, pp. 146-148.

    ii James McNeill Whistler, quoted in "Whistler and His Influence," The Art World, vol. 3, no. 1, October 1917, p. 12.

    iii Thomas S. Buechner, The Norman Rockwell Album, New York, 1961, p. 128.

    • Provenance

      Goldfield Galleries, Los Angeles
      Fitch-Febvrel Gallery, New York (acquired from the above in January 1998)
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1998

    • Literature

      Life, vol. 72, no. 1886, December 19, 1918 (illustrated on the cover)
      Mary Moline, Norman Rockwell Encyclopedia: A Chronological Catalog of the Artist’s Work 1910-1978, Indianapolis, 1979, fig. 1-67, p. 26 (cover for Life, December 19, 1918, illustrated)
      Laurie Norton Moffatt, Norman Rockwell: A Definitive Catalogue, vol. 1, Stockbridge, 1986, no. C108, p. 41 (illustrated)
      Virginia M. Mecklenburg, Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell From the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, New York, 2010, pp. 47, 194

    • Artist Biography

      Norman Rockwell

      Few artists have made as much of an impact on the American visual culture as Norman Rockwell. A master draughtsman and a keen observer of the quotidian, Rockwell produced an immense body of work noted for its vivid and loving depictions of the everyday graces of mid-20th century life, providing the pictorial framework for how Americans conceive of themselves then and today. His aspirational paintings lifted the American spirit during its darkest times but to this day reassure people worldwide of the fundamental values universal truths.

      Rockwell’s long and prodigious career began when he was only 22, when he contributed his first cover to The Saturday Evening Post. This precocious achievement presaged not only the artist’s immense successes contributing another 321 covers for this hugely-circulated magazine, the body of work that cemented his status as the leading chronicler of the American experience, but also his crowning as one of the most beloved American artists of all time. The many iconic images Rockwell produced and popularized are ubiquitous records of the American ethos.

      View More Works

Property from the Collection of Thomas Miller and Robert Boyett


My Mother (Soldier with French Woman)

signed “Norman Rockwell” lower right
oil on canvas laid on board
20 1/4 x 18 in. (51.4 x 45.7 cm)
Painted in 1918.

Full Cataloguing

$350,000 - 500,000 

Sold for $504,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Auctions
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 23 June 2021