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Norman Rockwell's Gift to Me
By Jules Wagner
Copyright 2001 Jules Wagner
A story about the writer's meeting with Norman Rockwell and the cherished gift the writer was given.

In my junior and senior high school years at Amsterdam New York, I excelled in all types of art work. As a youngster, I subscribed to Boys Life magazine which was illustrated by Norman Rockwell and other artists. When I was a very young boy, my brother and I sold and delivered over 250 magazines weekly. Naturally, I was aware of Norman Rockwell's skills at a very early age.
After graduation from high school, I was offered an art scholarship to Syracuse University which I could not afford to attend. Instead, at seventeen, I went to Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York and majored in art in 1937. Since I was in the New York City area, I attended many exhibits in the art field. The Society of Illustrators annual exhibition had a drawing to have your work criticized by Norman Rockwell. I was one of the lucky ones to receive Rockwell criticism at his studio in New Rochelle, New York.
I traveled by train to the Crestwood Railroad Station Tuesday, May 18th 1937. Driven by one of his staff to his New Rochelle studio, I lunched with Rockwell and several of his staff. They were artists redrawing Saturday Evening Post 17x22" black and white sketches to larger oil canvases for the final paintings in full oil colors. They did background and other work before Norman Rockwell did his artistic oil work on the illustrations. Norman had many little sketches in full color for different parts of the illustration for reference. It was very time consuming work to get it all done right and in time for each weekly cover. The day I was in his studio no live models were around. His criticism of my work that day resulted in my not becoming an illustrator but a good commercial artist. He was correct... because that is what I ended up doing... commercial art.
I said to him that no one will know I had been to visit him that day. He said he would remedy that by going to the wall file and pulling out a Saturday Evening Post cover sketch. He asked if I wanted it and I said "yes". He signed it and also signed the letter I had that showed me how to get to his studio. At the young age of seventeen I put the drawing and the letter in a container tube for safe keeping. It stayed in the tube for many years.
I started my career working in New York City for many various outfits in the art field in 1938. I could only afford one year at Pratt Institute. Working during the day I attended art courses at night to expand my skills. In rounding out my career I worked for advertising agencies, magazine publishers, radio broadcasting firms, printing firms, map making firms, etc.
I finally started my own advertising agency in Mount Vernon, New York. One of my volunteer jobs was doing public relations promotion for the Salvation Army of Westchester. I did this for about fifteen years. Each year the Salvation Army had a lunch or dinner honoring the Westchester volunteers. One affair was in New York City at a well known hotel. On the second floor of the hotel was a narrow room near the affair which had an exhibit of Norman Rockwell's work. It was guarded by a security guard. I asked him why it was guarded. He said that they were insured for thousands of dollars.
Norman Rockwell did many things to help the Salvation Army raise funds for their important work. After the affair, I went home and took down the Rockwell sketch from the ceiling in the cellar and put it on my kitchen table to dust it off. The next day I took it to my art framer to have it mounted and framed.
In those days, his sketches were on Kraft paper in charcoal, easily smudged if not handled correctly. The Kraft paper was so old and dried out that he only wet mounted it on heavy board paper after I told him it was not his responsibility if it was ruined in mounting. It took many weeks for it to dry out, ready for framing. It was framed with non-glare glass for protection.
The subject was the Saturday Evening Post cover "The Bill Board Painter"... February 9... 1935. I took the framed sketch to a Bronxville estate outfit for appraisal. It was appraised for $1500 dollars.
New Rochelle had an exhibit of Rockwell's work at the public library from May 2 through May 10. Saturday, May 2, they had a dinner for exhibitors and friends. My Rockwell charcoal sketch was on display with many other works of Rockwell. I could not attend the dinner, but my young daughter took my place. She stood by my sketch and explained how I got it to people who asked. Eve met many of the models who posed for the original cover paintings. It was a wonderful time for her.
The library discovered four paintings by Norman Rockwell buried in a corner of the library storage cellar. They were also on display at the exhibit. I heard later that they were sold for about $40,000.
After the exhibit I was offered $3000 for my sketch. The following year, the person offered $4000 for it. Years later on advice from a friend, I took the framed drawing to New York City for appraisal at at a buyer and seller of Rockwell original art. It was appraised for $25,000. It is now stored away in a very safe place.