A Norman Rockwell Mystery


In 1954, Norman Rockwell struggled with the idea of how to express in a painting the emotion a father feels when a son leaves home for the first time. Finally, he found the right characters and setting to tell the story of the sadness of an old man juxtaposed with the exuberance of his youthful son who is looking forward to an exciting future. The painting, called “Breaking Home Ties,” was published on the cover of “The Saturday Evening Post” on September 25, 1954, and it would become one of the most well-known paintings Rockwell ever created.

The Norman Rockwell Mystery
“The Norman Rockwell Mystery: The Don Trachte Replicas” is on view at the Monuments Arts and Cultural Center. Here we see visitors viewing the timeline. Photo credit Janice Prichett

In 1962, Norman Rockwell featured “Breaking Home Ties” at the Southern Vermont Art Center in Manchester, Vermont where his good friend, neighbor, and fellow artist, Don Trachte Sr. purchased the painting. Trachte was the cartoonist for the nationally syndicated cartoon strip “Henry.” He had moved to Arlington, Vermont, in 1950, where he joined a coterie of other established and successful artists, including the famous Norman Rockwell.

In 1974, Trachte and his wife divorced and settled on a property agreement leaving eight contested paintings, including “Breaking Home Ties,” to their children. The paintings continued to hang in the parents’ respective homes for the next 30 years.

In 2003 the Trachte family children sent “Breaking Home Ties” to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts for an exhibit called The Arlington Years. While the painting hung in the museum in Stockbridge some people questioned the appearance of the painting. One nationally known portrait artist, John Sanden, said it was a third-rate replica. This inspired Don Trachte’s sons, David, and Don Jr. to sleuth the real facts and prove the painting they had loaned to the museum was indeed the original.

In 2006, much to the Trachte boys’ dismay, they discovered that all eight paintings in the divorce were meticulously copied and hidden behind a secret wall in Don Trachte Sr’s. studio.

The original paintings hung locked in a narrow cache located directly behind a replica of “Breaking Home Ties” painted by Trachte himself. No one knew this for 30 years.

The paintings and replicas were on display at the Norman Rockwell Museum from April through November 2006. On November 29, 2006, “Breaking Home Ties” was sold at a Sotheby’s auction in New York for $15.4 million. It was the highest amount ever paid for a Norman Rockwell painting at that time.

Don Trachte drawing board including sketches of replicas
Don Trachte drawing board including sketches of replicas; Photo credit Janice Prichett

The mystery of the hidden paintings behind the wall will be displayed through a timeline of events that led to the discovery of the paintings now showing at the Monument Arts and Cultural Center in Bennington, Vermont. There are 16 paintings, plus letters, sketches, and Sotheby’s auction audio that provide a story used to solve the mystery story of the hidden original paintings.

Norman Rockwell replicas exhibition
Photo credit Janice Prichett

The paintings and replicas are on display at the Monument Arts and Cultural Center in Bennington, Vermont now through November, 2024.


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