Norman Rockwell (1894-1978)
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978)

A Study for 'Yankee Doodle'

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978)
A Study for 'Yankee Doodle'
signed 'Norman Rockwell' (lower right)--inscribed 'Yankee Doodle Came to Town··Riding on a Pony··Stuck a Feather in His Hat··and Called it Macaroni' (along the lower margin)
oil on board
8 x 24 in. (20.3 X 61 cm.) image; 13½ x 28¾ (34.29 x 73.3 cm.) board
Painted in 1937.
The artist.
Private collection, Rochester, New York, gift from the above.
By descent to the present owner.

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Lot Essay

Norman Rockwell's Yankee Doodle, which still hangs in the Nassau Inn in Princeton, New Jersey, is the largest mural by the artist. The mural was commissioned in 1937 by Edgar Palmer, a Princeton alumnus and Zinc magnate. Palmer had purchased the inn and moved it to the newly constructed Palmer Square, a quadrangle plot that was to become the new town center. The thirteen foot mural was installed in the Tap Room.
'Yankee Doodle' is a familiar song, popularized during the Revolutionary War. The song was written by English soldiers to mock the new Yankees for a lack of sophistication. Doodle, a term which dates back to the early seventeenth century, is thought to derive from dudel or düdel in German, meaning "fool" or "simpleton". The 'Macaroni' wig, to which the song refers, was an outlandish style of the 1770s and the term macaroni soon became synonymous with foppishness. The implication of the verse was that the Yankees were so unsophisticated that they thought simply sticking a feather in a cap would make them the height of fashion. Despite the disparaging tone of the original version, the song was soon adapted by the 'Yankees' themselves and recast as a patriotic anthem.

Rockwell clearly delighted in translating this song into his visual lexicon and the multi-figural work provided ample opportunity for the artist to create a dynamic interplay of the cast of characters. Rockwell's gift was in the expressions of his subjects and in this work--the finished version of which included nineteen people, two dogs, one pony, and one goose--no two expressions are the same. Rockwell did a number of preliminary works, some of which were individual portraits, in advance of the final mural and he made several slight compositional changes between this oil study and the final work. The charcoal drawing, the largest and most complete of the preliminary works, is in the collection of the Norman Rockwell Museum.

As America moved forward with its twentieth-century agenda, it also looked backward, drawing on the past to handle contemporary issues. In doing so, historical subjects became an enduring theme for Rockwell. "In remembering history, Americans discovered patterns and systems that could not be reoriented to serve current purposes. Rockwell's pictures played a role in shaping this sense of the past...Rockwell also found subjects in America's colonial past that demonstrate Yankee common sense and integrity." (J.L. Larson, M.H. Hennessey, "Norman Rockwell: A New Viewpoint," Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, p. 50)

The scope of Rockwell's appeal is still expanding as new generations live through the same quintessentially American types of experiences that Rockwell so faithfully depicted in his art. "For six decades, through two World Wars, the Great Depression, unprecedented national prosperity and radical social change, Norman Rockwell held up a mirror to America and reflected its identity through the portraits he painted of its people...Rockwell's paintings have done more than just sell magazines. They are in a large measure the visual memory of a nation." (V. Crenson, Norman Rockwell's Portrait of America, New York, 1989, p. 9)

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