Saturday, December 12, 2009

“Soda Jerk” Not the Post Cover

Yesterday, Jeanette and I visited the exhibition “Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera,” and we made an interesting discovery that apparently no one has noticed before.

A painting on exhibit, which purports to be the well-known 1953 Post cover “Soda Jerk” is not what it appears to be.

Have a look for yourself. On the left is a photograph of the original painting in the show. It is owned by the Columbus Museum of Art. According to the official Columbus Museum website, it "appeared in the August 22, 1953 issue" of The Saturday Evening Post.” On the right is a photograph of the actual tearsheet.

Notice the differences. In the CMA painting at left, there’s a red leash on the dog that doesn’t appear in the finished work. The CMA version lacks tiles on the floor, the view out the window is much more green, and the juke box is green, rather than brown.

In this closeup, the CMA version (left) lacks the menu behind the napkin holder. Overall, the painting is much looser and sketchier. Pencil lines are clearly visible throughout.

I believe it is an alternate version that Rockwell abandoned for an unknown reason after what he called “the color layin.” (Guptill, 1946, p. 204)

If you compare the signature on the CMA version (above) to the one that appears on the published version (below), note that the x-height, spacing, and baselines of the red signature are far beneath Rockwell’s standard. Rockwell typically didn’t sign his abandoned versions.

It's possible that the signature on the Columbus Museum painting was forged by another hand, though it would take sleuth-work from a conservator to know for sure. There's no doubt in my mind that the rest of the work is authentically painted by Rockwell.

In the Norman Rockwell Album (1961, p. 134) Rockwell mentions that “I painted this cover twice.” But the alternate version he refers to appears to be a third version, which includes a man in the foreground that is missing in both of these.

Apparently, the authentic published original remains unlocated. I hope that more light will be shed on this mystery.
More about the exhibition at the NRM site.
Image licensed by Norman Rockwell Licensing, Niles, IL


Tyler J said...

How cool; good eye detectives!

Steve said...

Good eye is right! Was the tearsheet displayed near the painting? When we were there in September, all the tearsheets were in the long downstairs room. I'm thinking of you and Jeanette shuttling between the two images to make your comparisons and wondering if that's how you did it.

One other interesting difference seems to be that in the painting there is detectable evidence of a bra under the sweater/blouse of the girl with her back to us. It doesn't show up in the tearsheet.

I'm thinking a forged signature would be regarded as significant, perhaps changing the value of the painting. True?

Steve said...

One last thing I've wondered: do the colors on the tearsheets degrade over time? I can picture some of the greens becoming yellower -- though maybe not enough to account for these differences.

James Gurney said...

Steve, yes, we kept going up and down those stairs trying to keep each image in our short term memories. What tipped us off was the unfinished look of the painting. You're right: you could see the bra right through the girl's shirt, and that didn't seem right for NR either.

It might interest art students to see the painting on exhibit to see how Rockwell handled a color block-in.

I think the revelation of the recent "Breaking Home Ties" forgery recently kind of sensitized us to look out for anomalies.

Super Villain said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daroo said...

Did Don Trachte ever own it? Did any of the other Arlington illustrators own it and can we search through their old paneled rooms?

But Seriously, I wonder what the provenance of the painting is? Have you contacted the Columbus people with your hypothesis?

If this was his color lay in how thickly painted was it?

In Rockwell on Rockwell (pgs 168- 169) He describes his monochromatic underpainting as being painted very thinly (virtually drybrush)with whites loaded in using an underpainting white(mostly casein -- so it dries quickly). The next morning he gives it a coat of half cut shellac and then, when dry, "washes " in the local colors transparently, before preceding with thicker, final painting and rendering of surface detail.

Okay, He was happy with the composition and drawing, the values were right, but the colors were slightly cooler than he wanted. So at that point he stretches a new canvas, sets up the balopticon, lays in his drawing again, does another color sketch, does another monochromatic underpainting, seals it, lays in his color, and then precedes to paint the final painting. (Phew! Just writing that paragraph tired me out.)

Leland Purvis said...

In a recent interview with Brad Holland
he mentioned that occasionally he will make a deadline and turn a work in, then when he gets it back, alter it to his satisfaction.

Possible Rockwell doctored it after he got it back? Thus we would get three versions from just two originals.

Super Villain said...

i thought i read that rockwell being a perfectionist would get a painting about 90% finished, feel it wasnt perfect or whatever, pack it up and start on the same image totally from start. is it possible there are multipule soda jerks out there. and this is just one of two or three original paintings.

i swear reading norman rockwells "my adventures as an illistrator" i read that he did this to a few of his paintings. got them almost totally finished and then became dissatisfied, packed it up, and started again.

he had that terrible "100%" sign above his easle that he told himself he would give 100% effort on all his paintings and if it didnt live up to that, packed up and started again? atleast thats what i thought i read, i could be wrong.

dont you have one of those "100%" signs james, haha! i created one for myself, that keeps up with my work ethic and work says "15%", hahahah!

James Gurney said...

Daroo, I'm sure the Rockwell Museum archivists will shed light on provenance. The CMA original is listed as "Bequest of J. Willard Loos."

You're also right that in Guptill and Rockwell on Rockwell, NR spoke of doing a monochromatic lay-in before the color lay-in. If this is an early state of an abandoned work, there doesn't seem to be that monochromatic layin visible underneath the color (the paint is very thin and semitransparent). Perhaps by the early 1950s NR was beginning to skip or drop the mars violet stage of the ebauche and go straight to color; I don't know.

But Leland, it's definitely not a rework. The elements all have the look of an initial statement.

Also, I don't believe the CMA piece is a rework of the false start with the foreground man shown at the end of the post. That would only be possible if he really built up the ground over the repaint in a new layer on the same canvas. Maybe the NRM conservators can help us out here.

It's also conceivable that he (or someone else) did a new work after the fact as a knock-off, a gift---or a forgery. But I would rule those out because of how quickly everything is stated, and the fact that the floor tiles are left off. If the whole painting were a forgery, they would have gotten the signature right!

Deborah said...

As an enthusiastic veteran of the comic page's 'find the six differences', I also spotted the fact that the soda jerk's glasses are at a slightly different distance, with more eye showing in one, and the pencil behind his ear is at a slightly different angle. Of course, I'm only examining the photos you showed here.


Bonecas da Filó said...

Lindo trabalho,adorei,desejo-lhe um Feliz Natal!!!Beautiful work

Unknown said...

this is incredible! I am very interested to see what comes of your observations!

Brittani Kelzenberg said...

I decided to google search "Norman Rockwell Soda Jerk" and the whole page was filled with the Post cover, without the leash and other things. However, there was one image that wasn't the Post cover image:

The portrait of him painting the said painting has the red leash. So I suppose it would make it an original and someone really DID forge the signature?

James Gurney said...

Great discovery, Brittani. Wonder why Rockwell portrayed himself painting the red-leash version, since the red leash doesn't appear in the published version. The painting-within-a-painting also leaves off the juke box at the far right side of the composition.

I agree with your conclusion. The red leash was genuinely part of his intention at one point, and he did paint the CMA version.

Gayle said...

you can also see the edge of the bra strap in the painting Brittani found.

Gwen said...

Maybe it's just the scan or my eyes, but to me the "red leash" version also has a jealous young onlooker in the back left corner. While the one on the right seems to have a grumpy old man onlooker. Kinda changes the entire meaning of the work...

Daroo said...

Here's some detail shots that somebody has posted on flickr of the CMA version:

I can see here that there is no monochromatic ebauche and plenty of pencil showing through. It looks as though he painted up to the lines but not past them, often leaving gaps. So I suppose this stage allowed him to establish both his major areas of local color and the corresponding value without losing his careful drawing. Then he could go and develop the individual parts, anywhere in the painting, with confidence, having all his relative value, hue and drawing relationships established.

I always thought the monochromatic under painting was redundant because of his brilliant, fully rendered charcoal "paintings".

Is the third version image in this post (the one with the man in the foreground) A painting reproduced in grayscale or a charcoal drawing?

James Gurney said...

Daroo--that third painting was reproduced in black and white in the Norman Rockwell Album, but the way he referred to it sounded like it was another attempted start at the painting.

Larry said...

Ouch! I wonder what the monetary ramifications are of this discovery.

CorryK said...

Dear James,

I just wanted to point a few things out regarding your recent post about Norman Rockwell's Soda Jerk painting. As you noted, the illustration in our galleries is not the image which was reproduced on the cover. Rockwell stated in The Norman Rockwell Album (Doubleday: 1961), that he "painted this cover twice"(p.134). In that same paragraph, he also states that he "greatly reduced the size of the painting." It's possible that Rockwell reduced the painting's size to make things a littler easier, as he suffered with a bout of illness while working on it. In a letter from our Archives, Ken Stuart (art editor of The Saturday Evening Post) wrote to Rockwell, "I hope you're shaking off that grippe germ,"(June 4, 1953). Indeed, the following month, Rockwell admitted to Stuart, "I was low as hell when I finished that last cover"(July 7, 1955). Whatever Rockwell's reasoning for abandoning the larger version of Soda Jerk which is currently on view in Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera, he did eventually find a use for it. The painting served as a prop in a 1955 self-portrait that illustrated the cover of A Norman Rockwell Album, a special insert featuring Rockwell's work, published in the March 12, 1955 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. From our Archives, a reference image for the self-portrait shows Rockwell posed with the painting now owned by Columbus Museum of Art. Unfortunately, the photograph does not show the area where the painting is signed. Rockwell did in fact sign most of the art he produced, including both preliminary sketches and finished paintings, and used many different signatures throughout his long career. In a letter from 1971, he noted "I sign my name according to the spirit of the picture. If it is a very light sketch or humorous subject, I very likely sign it informally. If it is a large picture, I sign it in the formal." I hope this may add to your interpretation of the signature which has been discussed in your post.

Corry Kanzenberg
Curator of Archival Collections
Norman Rockwell Museum

James Gurney said...

Corry, thanks so much for digging out the documents and shedding some interesting new light on the mystery.

Kempton said...

Thanks for sharing your insights. And it was cool to read the various comments and the one by Corry Kanzenberg from NRM.

Paul Sullivan said...

From what I can see in the images displayed, I am inclined to doubt the CMA version is Rockwell's work. As you know, Don Trachte painted a fake version of "Breaking Home Ties" discovered in 2006.

I know you believe the CMA version could be Rockwell's initial version abandoned after the first "color layin". Yet, in this version some of the draftsmanship established in the charcoal drawing has been lost. That is the sort of thing a thin "color layin" would strive to maintain. The structure of the sugar jar is an example.

It would be interesting to know if you have had any more thoughts on this.

Here's a side comment on the published version that is a rather cheap shot. Assuming the floor tiles are supposed to be square tiles drawn in perspective— and the counter is at a right angle to the window wall— the floor is going "down hill". The perspective in this picture is way off.

Paul Sullivan

James Gurney said...

Paul, Thanks for adding your thoughts. Personally, I think it's doubtful that the painting at Columbus is a forgery because it differs in various ways (if I was copying a published painting, I'd be sure to match it in every particular). Also, Rockwell's originals weren't particularly valuable at the time, so why would someone bother to forge it? Additionally, Rockwell admitted that he painted multiple originals. Finally, the touch looked like Rockwell's to me. So I guess it's possible, but it doesn't seem likely to me.

jj said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jj said...

A notebook I recently ordered just arrived. It has the Soda Jerk as its cover. But when I opened the packaging, I noticed that it was not the painting I was familiar with. So I went on Google and found this post from 2009, and I must say I am glad to have done so. Amazing insight that I couldn't possibly have found out alone both from the post and the comments. Reading through made me feel like I was in a time machine. Thanks a ton.(Also your youtube videos are awesome and very relaxing)