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  • Russ Ramsey

In Detail: Norman Rockwell's Breaking Home Ties

Details matter. They’re beautiful. They set the temperature in the room. They import the drama. They lay out context. With story and imagery, we get implication, subtlety, and emotional cues. Details provide both lyric and music. Rockwell’s use of details carry his stories. Consider Breaking Home Ties from 1954.

Norman Rockwell, Breaking Home Ties, 1954.

In the bottom of the frame, we see the smooth rail of a train track. To the left we see the red flag and lamp the station agent will use to signal the inbound train to stop. A father and son sit on the runner boards of the man’s old pick-up truck. They are waiting for the Pullman that will take the young man away to college. As the eye travels around the canvas, it’s a masterclass in the use of contrasting detail to lead us to the sad but inevitable idea of the painting—at some point we will all take our leave from one another.

Breaking Home Ties, Rail detail

Red flag and lamp detail

The old man wears worn denim work clothes and scuffed boots. When he drives home he will get out of his truck and go back to work. The son wears a new suit with a playful tie, fancy socks, and polished loafers. He looks brand new, which really describes what he’s doing—stepping into the new unknown, unsullied by this tarnished world. In his lap he holds a meal—sustenance for his travel no doubt prepared by his mother.

Two figures, detail.

The father holds two hats—one, a straw wide-brim to protect him from the unrelenting sun, and the other a fancy new fedora that matches the boy’s outfit. This is the stoic father’s way of holding on to his son these last few moments without the son or anyone else having to know.

Two hats, detail

The father slumps forward and looks down the track that will carry his boy away. He looks weary and lost in thought. The fob for his truck key dangles from his shirt pocket. In the boy’s pocket is his ticket. He sits upright, almost coiled, searching the opposite direction for the oncoming train. The book marks in his texts show that he’s already begun his assigned reading. In his mind he’s already a college student, and he’s already gone.

Bookmark detail

The family dog rests his chin on the boy’s knee—unconditionally devoted and in no hurry whatsoever. We know he will hop back in the truck when the train pulls away, and he will be every bit as happy that evening as he is content now. But when the father gets home, he will, no doubt, be asked to give a report on the boy’s send-off. He will offer few words—mostly about the timeliness of the train, adding, almost as an afterthought, that the boy was fine. He’ll be fine.

Norman Rockwell, Breaking Home Ties, 1954.

I find this painting profoundly sad in a hopeful way. Rockwell uses his details to hammer home the fact that everyone gets left at some point. Everyone must let others go on into the new things the Lord has for them. As human beings, we relate to the hope of the unexplored, the possibility of new beginnings, the economy of leaving everything behind except what we can carry in our hands. We come to know the sorrow of saying goodbye and the existential complexity of feeling set in a role that might carry on for years, decades, or even until we leave this earth. We know what it’s like to live in the rhythms of a mundane life while others around us step out of the familiar into something completely new. We know what it’s like to keep these kinds of feelings inside, lest we show ourselves insensitive to the struggles of others or lose control of our own emotions in ways we’d rather not. And we often feel these things most in the waiting—when the world slows and we’re between things and our minds have time to wander.




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