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

The Christmas Coach

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978)
The Christmas Coach
signed 'Norman/Rockwell' (lower right)
oil on canvas
30 x 24 in. (76.2 x 61 cm.)
Painted in 1930.
The artist.
Clyde Forsythe, gift from the above.
By descent to the present owner.
Ladies' Home Journal, December 1930, p. 7, illustrated.
L.N. Moffatt, Norman Rockwell: A Definitive Catalogue, vol. II, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, 1986, pp. 682-83, no. S373, illustrated.

Lot Essay

The present painting was gifted by Norman Rockwell to his friend, fellow illustrator and studio mate, Clyde Forsythe. The lot includes a copy of a 1972 letter from Rockwell to Forsythe's family about the present work.

Charles Dickens wrote of Christmas, "Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveler, thousands of miles away, back to his own fire-side and his quiet home!" (The Pickwick Papers, 1836) As exemplified by The Christmas Coach, published in the December 1930 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal, Norman Rockwell's art is much the same, capturing nostalgic moments that strike pleasant remembrances and recall a bygone era in America's history.

Ever since his first paying commission--received from Mrs. Arnold Constable in 1911 to produce Christmas cards--Rockwell has been inextricably linked to Christmas in America. He produced numerous magazine covers, illustrations and advertisements for the holiday, painted Christmas cards for Hallmark and designed holiday calendars for Brown and Bigelow. "So identified with this one season did Rockwell become that a number of his canvases which contain no explicit references whatever to Christmas--various generic winter scenes, for example, and even some scenes that lack any seasonal signature--are nevertheless thought of by enough people as being 'typical' Rockwell Christmas paintings so that they continue to be reproduced at Yuletide year after year." (J. Kirk, Christmas with Norman Rockwell, North Dighton, Massachusetts, 1990, p. 8)

While the present work lacks the most obvious of Christmas references, such as Santa Claus or a Christmas tree, the composition of travelers and goods bundled on an old-fashioned coach, driving through the snowy landscape, derives from Rockwell’s particular fascination with the Dickensian depiction of the holiday season. Karal Ann Marling explains, "One of the artist's favorite childhood memories was of his own father, sitting in a pool of lamplight at the dining room table at the turn of the century, reading Dickens aloud to his children. 'I would draw pictures of the different characters,' Rockwell remembered. 'Mr. Pickwick...Uriah Heep...I was very deeply impressed and moved by Dickens...The variety, sadness, horror, happiness, treachery;...the sharp impressions of dirt, food, inns, horses, streets; and people...' In 1945, Rockwell told the New Yorker that his parents had agreed to send him to art school after seeing a drawing of Ebenezer Scrooge that Norman had made while listening to his father read A Christmas Carol. His most effective Christmas covers drew upon his love for the world of Dickens and the pungent scent of realism Rockwell associate with the Olde England of his childhood memories. Rockwell did eight Dickens covers for the Post...between 1921 and 1938. Most of the holiday designs took as their theme the coach, its driver, the passengers, or the heart-warming trials involved in going home again for Christmas." (Merry Christmas!: Celebrating America's Greatest Holiday, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2009, p. 132)

Indeed, the present work’s composition closely recalls London Stagecoach, the December 5th, 1925 cover of The Saturday Evening Post, as well as The Christmas Coach (Dover Coach), published in the December 28th, 1935 issue of the Post and now in the collection of the Society of Illustrators’ Museum of American Illustration, New York. Here, Rockwell depicts a vibrantly-attired woman wrapped warmly for her ride home for the holidays on the U.S. Mail coach. Positioned next to the driver with his classic greatcoat and top hat, complete with a decorative sprig of holly, she is surrounded by a bounty of holiday gifts, from the patterned box on her lap to the plump goose hanging off the side of the seat.

With his classic attention to detail, Rockwell fully transports the viewer into this scene from a simpler, idealized yesteryear--an appealing escape for viewers, both then and now. Marling expounds, “In keeping with the home-and-hearth character of revivalism, many of Norman Rockwell’s most fully developed colonial works were executed not for the Post but for the Ladies’ Home Journal…often Rockwell’s pictures seem to have been painted simply because the artist wanted to. Full of romance and precise delineation of furniture, costume, carpets, and accessories, these independent compositions reflected his own interest in the accoutrements of the Colonial Revival…All created between 1930 and 1932, these early efforts matched the tone and content of the Ladies’ Home Journal. They were the kind of pictures readers clipped and framed for their bedroom walls, where they hung among the silhouettes of colonial worthies that were a decorating ‘must’ of the period.” (Norman Rockwell, New York, 1997, pp. 52-53)

Moreover, the optimism of these images provided a boost of good cheer during the holiday season in years of national uncertainty. “In the 1930s, with the onset of the Great Depression, the Colonial Revival also became a spiritual anchor in the stormy seas of despair—a ‘usable past.’…With doomsayers predicting the end of the republic, history offered a kind of reassurance.” (Norman Rockwell, p. 50) With The Christmas Coach, Rockwell succeeds not only in evoking the spirit of Dickens' stories and Colonial times, but also in capturing the nostalgia associated with Christmas and bringing the joy of the holiday to houses across America.

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