A painting by Vermont artist Norman Rockwell set a record when it was auctioned Wednesday by Sotheby's in New York City. Saying Grace sold for just over $46 million, a record for an individual American painting.
Two other Rockwell paintings earned high price tags at Wednesday's auction: The Gossips sold for nearly $8.5 million and Walking to Church went for more than $3.2 million.
The paintings had been on loan at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. for nearly 20 years. Stephanie Plunkett, the museum's deputy director and chief curator, was at Sotheby's for the auction, and described the scene for Vermont Edition.
"There were a lot of people in the room, on the floor at Sotheby’s," Plunkett says. "And of course there were people in private viewing rooms also that were looking down on the action."
"All the bidding for this particular work was done by phone. So we couldn’t see exactly who was bidding on the pieces," Plunkett says. "But there was certainly a lot of lively activity. I think it was nine minutes or so of back and forth."
Two of the three buyers were anonymous, according to the New York Times.
The painting depicts an older woman and young boy saying grace at a table in a crowded railway diner while several people – one of them modeled on Rockwell's son, Jarvis – look on with varied reactions.
"It’s a beautiful, cluttered but also organized scene," says Plunkett. "In some ways I think it epitomizes Rockwell’s ideal artwork, which he said was 'always filled with humor and pathos.' So you have a little bit of both sides of feeling in this work ... It's really a Rockwell icon that in some ways reflects his incredible mastery."
Saying Grace and several other paintings in the auction were owned by the family of Kenneth Stuart. Stuart was the art director for the Saturday Evening Post, the magazine that published many Rockwell illustrations on its cover. Saying Grace was the cover image for the Thanksgiving issue published on Nov. 24, 1951.
Will the paintings ever hang at the Norman Rockwell Museum again?
"We always say we never know," Plunkett says. "Unless someone really wants to reveal themselves as the owner, it’s sometimes difficult to find out who owns the artwork … But sometimes people want to reveal themselves, they want to share the work by placing it on loan. So we hope that’s going to be what happens."
Until then, Plunkett says she'll feel the paintings' absence: "I have to say, I’m personally going to miss them tremendously."