The man who faked Rockwell
An exclusive tour of the home where a lost painting was discovered behind a false wall.
SANDGATE, VT. — The question of why their father created a near-perfect copy of a famous Norman Rockwell painting remains a question vexing the sons of cartoonist Don Trachte. In a dramatic announcement last week, the Trachte family revealed the discovery of an original Rockwell oil painting concealed behind a false wall in their deceased father's house. The 1954 painting, "Breaking Home Ties," had been hidden in the secret compartment for three decades, just inches from where Trachte, who owned the picture, had displayed his facsimile of the iconic image.
It's not entirely clear what compelled Trachte, who for six decades drew the comic strip "Henry," to carry out the elaborate deception. But since 2002, when the family placed the painting on long-term loan with the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., the fake has been seen by countless museum-goers who believed it to be authentic.
The incident has left Trachte's three sons to come to terms with their father's deception, and to explain why he never divulged what he had done. "We're sitting here now going, 'Holy smoke,' " admits Donald Trachte Jr. "We're a little overwhelmed."
A day after the story made news around the world, Don Jr. gathered with brothers Dave and Jon at their father's home, a modest lodge hidden amid evergreens in the Vermont hamlet of Sandgate, outside Arlington. (A sister, Marjorie Rosenberg of Long Island, did not attend.) As they led this reporter on an exclusive tour through their father's rooms - including the one that concealed his secret - the sons reflected on his actions with a mixture of bewilderment, chagrin, and pride.
Events have moved quickly for the family since the discovery of the Rockwell on March 17. That was when Don and Dave slid back a paneled wall in their father's living room to reveal a cache of eight paintings, most by regional artists, but also including "Breaking Home Ties," which experts estimate is worth at least $5 million. The brothers immediately realized that the version of the painting long displayed by their father was a copy he'd made himself.
The discovery helped answer nagging questions about the renowned painting, which depicts an optimistic young man about to leave home while his father and dog sit dolefully beside him. Experts were troubled by discrepancies between the existing canvas and tear sheets of the image as it first appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Chief among the differences was the face of the boy, which in the copy has neither the crispness nor the confidence of the original expression. Yet because the paper trail of ownership left little doubt as to the work's apparent authenticity, the incongruities were blamed on over-cleaning of the picture.
The Trachtes immediately informed the Rockwell Museum of their find. "I was pretty nervous about going down there," said Don Jr., feeling some responsibility for the exhibition of the imposter. "When I told them, their jaws were on the table." The museum (nrm.org) has organized an exhibit through October displaying both the Rockwell paintings - the original and the copy - and other objects related to the incident.
In press materials supplied by the museum, Don Jr. states that, upon sliding back the false wall, "I knew in an instant that I was looking at the eight paintings disputed in my parents' divorce in 1973." Initial press reports had the son conceding that concerns about the divorce settlement may have compelled his father to forge the Rockwell, but by the time of the discovery's official announcement in Stockbridge, the family was backing away from the divorce as a cause-and-effect explanation.
The next day in Vermont, Trachte's sons painted a portrait of their father as considerably less conniving. A tour of the cartoonist's home revealed a man who was eccentric and self-reliant, and whose obsessions were leavened by an eclectic ingenuity. Besides his skill at reproducing Rockwell, Trachte was a man who could pour a concrete foundation, build his own player-piano mechanism, play Chopin and Beethoven, and converse on arcane aspects of astronomy.
"I can't imagine a guy more versatile," said Don Jr., "and we haven't even talked about making ice cream with the power takeoff of the Jeep."
Trachte was born in 1915 in Madison, Wis., where he studied journalism before meeting Carl Anderson, creator of the comic strip "Henry." Trachte became Anderson's collaborator in 1933, and drew the Sunday edition of the bald, speechless cartoon boy until 1993. In 1949, Trachte moved his family to Arlington, then-home of Rockwell and a number of other illustrators. He was soon part of a close-knit circle of artist friends, and spent time in Rockwell's studio watching him paint.
Trachte could easily have observed early stages of "Breaking Home Ties," which Rockwell started in Arlington in 1953 and finished the next year in his new home in Stockbridge, Mass. In 1960, Trachte bought the picture from Rockwell for $900, and four years later refused a prospective buyer's offer of $35,000. "You must be crazy not to sell it," Rockwell wrote his friend, "but I adore your loyalty."
Exactly when Trachte copied the painting is uncertain. As for his motive, his sons offered the theory that the forgery might have been a decoy against potential thieves. And they contend that their father deliberately altered the face of the boy as a clue to the deception. "Many times I've looked at it and said, 'Speak to me,' " said Don Jr. "Do those eyes look like someone else's eyes? Could that be the code?"
Like his alter-ego Henry, however, Trachte remained mute, and left no indication of what he had done in his will. Even when his eldest son informed him his version was going to the Rockwell Museum, Trachte said nothing. By then, Don Jr. observed, his memory was failing him, and he may have forgotten his secret. "He might have thought, 'I'll get around to it someday,' " said his son about revealing his secret, "and then never did."
Don Trachte's near-perfect forgery of the Norman Rockwell painting "Breaking Home Ties" was the work of a commercial artist who aspired for more. Trachte produced the comic strip "Henry" for 60 years, but gave much of his artistic effort to oil painting, leaving behind dozens of his own still lifes, landscapes, and portraits. In the wake of their discovery, Trachte's three sons, Don Jr., of Burlington, Vt.; Dave, of Arlington, Vt.; and Jon, of Houston, met with the Monitor at their father's house outside Arlington to discuss his life and career.
Monitor: Your father spent a lot of time in Rockwell's studio, when Rockwell lived in Arlington.
Don Jr.: Yes, they were friends. He not only stood and watched Rockwell, he knew what kind of paints, he knew what kind of varnish - he knew what [Rockwell] did. A casual observer might stand there and watch the motion or something, but Dad absorbed a lot.
Monitor: Do you think your father was satisfied with his career as an artist, or did he hope for more?
Don Jr.: I think he hoped for more....
Jon: Particularly painting. I think he wanted really to make a big impression.
Dave: That's what Mom said. Painting was what he liked.
Jon: Cartooning was exciting in the '30s and '40s and '50s, but then the syndicate changed, the editors changed, and I think he felt frustrated a little bit about "Henry" and the restrictions he felt they were putting on the strip. I think his real passion became oil painting.
Don Jr.: I don't think he looked at himself as being highly successful. But he wasn't bitter about it.... We're just peeling the onion skin back here. We look at [his paintings] a lot differently today than we did two weeks ago.