VINDICATOR EXCLUSIVE The Butler Institute of American Art is proud to have acquired a masterpiece painted by an American icon --
By GUY D'ASTOLFO
VINDICATOR ENTERTAINMENT WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- A Norman Rockwell masterpiece has found a new home in the Butler Institute of American Art.
Rockwell's 1965 painting "Lincoln the Railsplitter" was acquired by the Butler on Nov. 30 for 1.6 million in a sale at Christie's Auction House in New York.
The painting -- the Butler's first Rockwell -- arrived in Youngstown a few weeks ago. Museum officials have kept the purchase secret until today.
The previous owner was Texas billionaire and former presidential candidate H. Ross Perot.
The painting, which had not been shown in public for many years, will be unveiled Feb. 16 in a gala event at the Butler. It will be displayed for an indefinite period in the museum's Ford Gallery.
The magnitude of the acquisition has caused a wave of excitement at the museum.
"When it arrived, I felt like Joseph Butler Jr. when 'Snap the Whip' arrived, said Dr. Louis Zona, director of the Butler, referring to the museum's founder and the famed painting by Winslow Homer. "Snap the Whip" has become the museum's signature piece.
"I'm still pinching myself," said Zona, who was obviously in awe, as he showed the painting to a visitor. "This is the biggest event in my 25 years at the Butler, in terms of adding to the collection."
Zona put the painting and its creator in perspective.
"In 50 years, this will be extraordinarily valuable," he said. "Rockwell [1894-1978] is America's most beloved artist of the 20th century. We are just now beginning to realize that he was one of the giants. He marched to his own drumbeat. He was a realist when abstraction was in focus."
Rockwell paintings, with their highly recognizable style, graced advertising, periodicals and countless other items. They often evoked warmth and small-town charm. Countless artists attempt to imitate the Rockwell style.
Zona said the works of Rockwell were considered pass & eacute; for a while, but they are now finding homes in major art collections around the country.
The lack of a Rockwell was a gaping hole in the collection of the Butler, which, Zona said, prides itself on narrative American painting.
The acquisition was a long time coming, as the Butler always wanted to obtain a Rockwell.
William A. Bresnahan, president of the Butler's board of directors, said "The process [of obtaining a Rockwell] evolved through a series of fits and starts over the years. For one reason or another, it never worked out.
But it came to a fortuitous end as this piece is nicer than ones we had previously considered."
Zona concurred that the wait was worth it.
"We waited for years until the time was right," he said. "It's like it was just meant to be. Rockwell is the quintessential American artist, and Lincoln is the quintessential American subject. It's seems to good to be true."
He continued: "If ever a painting belonged in the collection of the Butler, this is the one," said Zona. "Given the fact that the Butler is our country's first museum of American art, this masterpiece by one of the greatest of American artists is a most perfect addition."
Bresnahan predicted the painting will become "an automatic stop" for museum visitors.
Museum officials first caught wind of the masterpiece's availability months ago when they noticed it in a Christie's catalog.
"The board of directors became excited about the prospect of getting it," said Zona.
An art expert in New York examined the piece for the Butler and reported that "it's even nicer in real life." The decision was made to pursue it.
The auction, which took about two minutes, was held Nov. 30. Butler officials did not attend the auction, but stayed in contact with their representative at Christie's by telephone.
Several bidders showed interest initially, but quickly dropped out, leaving just the Butler and a private collector in the hunt.
The price quickly topped seven figures, said Zona.
When the gavel came down on the deal, Zona, Bresnahan and other Butler officials -- who were listening in live on speaker phone -- erupted in celebration.
"We high-fived each other," said Bresnahan.
"I was numb," said Franklin S. Bennett Jr., treasurer of the Butler board of directors.
The larger-than-life painting -- it's 84.5 inches by 44.5 inches -- was commissioned in 1962 (and completed in 1965) for an advertisement by the Lincoln First Federal Savings and Loan of Spokane, Wash. Unlike many Rockwell paintings, the image never was popularized on commercial items.
Of the work, Rockwell wrote, "I hope this painting might inspire the youth of this land to appreciate this man who believed so much in the value of education."
The painting depicts Lincoln as a man in his 20s, a time when he worked as a land surveyor in Sangamon County in central Illinois. Carl Sandburg documented this period in Lincoln's life in his book "The Prairie Years," which served as inspiration to Rockwell when he created "Lincoln the Railsplitter."
In the painting, Lincoln carries an ax through a field, a split-rail fence in the background, while immersed in a book he's carrying in his other hand.
"The size of the work forces you to look up at it," noted Zona. He pointed out that Rockwell touched Lincoln with a sunlit glow, lending an aura to the subject.
The Butler paid for the painting with money from its acquisition fund, which is separate from its regular operating expenses; a gift from the Draime family fund; and community gifts. Zona said an as-yet-undetermined secondary painting from the museum's vast holdings will be sold to help offset the purchase.
The timing of the announcement by the Butler comes close to Rockwell's birthday (Feb. 3) and Lincoln's birthday (Feb. 12).