Look at this picture. It is called “Breaking Home Ties” and was painted by Norman Rockwell in 1954. In our era of ubiquitous video, we sometimes forget how enjoyable it can be to contemplate a still image. But Rockwell’s paintings, if you have the patience to spend time with them, tell stories far richer than many video works.
The action is clear enough: A man is sending his son off to college – a story not as simple as it looks.
Clearly this is a rural family. The single upright post and boards laid flat on the ground place the scene at a country railroad station not used to handling a lot of passenger traffic. The father’s work shirt, jeans, western boots, the bandanna in his back pocket, the 1930s era truck with its long missing spare tire (notice the empty oval in the dinged up running board next to the father) speak of a life of hard work and thrift.
The boy is going off to “State U” which is obviously far enough away that you have to take a train to get there. Dressed in his best suit and tie, he is unaware of the home ties that are being broken. He looks over and past his father’s head with an expression of anticipation and delight at the new adventure upon which he is about to embark. He could be looking for the train, or he could be looking to the future. In his mind, Mom and Dad, the ranch, the dog, will always be there, waiting in an eternal, unchanging present whenever he comes back home.
He is a raw-boned youth, his wiry build apparent under his suit, the rest of his body not yet catching up to the size of his hands and feet. His outfit reflects the family’s efforts to send him off with the best respectability they can afford. The suit is of a lighter color and style popular during the 1950s, probably bought at Sears, Roebuck. The close fitting shoulders and cuffed pants coming up high on his ankles when he sits suggest that it must have fit well when the boy was a year or two smaller. His yellow pocket handkerchief, the loud colors of his wide tie and argyle socks speak of a ranch mother’s efforts to dress her boy with as much fashion sense as one can find, living so far from the sophisticated cities (although my recollection is that every man and boy in those days had a suit like this).
He takes with him his few books and possessions in the travel trunk on the left and in the small suitcase between his feet. The suitcase, of a style a little out of date by 1950s, suggests that he comes from working people. In his hands he holds a little package lovingly wrapped and tied with a ribbon. Looks to me like a lunch that his mother packed for the trip.
Given that the boy is probably seventeen or eighteen years old, and the dog with its head on his knee is fully grown, dog and boy have spent a number of years together. At this moment, the boy is not thinking about the dog. But the expression on the dog’s face tells us that the animal understands that separation and sadness are coming.
For me the focal point of the story is the father. The man is a rancher. In the actual painting the word “Ranch” and his brand are painted on the hood of the truck behind him. (You cannot see it too well in the image reproduced here.) Perhaps he inherited the family ranch from his father and hoped to pass it along to his own son. That is somewhat less likely now with the boy going to be a college man.
Look at the expression on the father’s face – the cigarette dangling from his half-smiling lips, the eyes that hide whatever emotion he is feeling as men of his generation were raised to do. What thoughts are going through his mind? It is easy to imagine that they are all occurring at once. Is he happy? Sad? Disappointed? Proud? Cannot believe that this is actually happening? Was he dreaming of one day working the ranch side by side with his fine, strong son? And now this?
Probably, foremost in his thoughts is the understanding that his son will surpass him. The man knows this is how it must be, but it must be hard for him not to think about the way his life has turned out compared to the potential that his son represents. From the date of the painting we can deduce that the man grew up during the Great Depression and is probably a World War II veteran. After mustering out, maybe he thought about the “G.I. Bill” with its offer of a college education, but decided on ranching. Does he regret that decision now and look with a little envy on his son?
Notice the body language. The son sits up straight and alert. The father slumps over, elbows on knees, looking in the direction of his imagination. Check the size of the sons feet compared to those of the father in his narrow cowboy boots. This boy is going to be taller and stronger than his old man by the time he finishes college and reaches his full adult height and figure. The man, who has been the tall, strong family provider, takes the first steps toward his diminishment and is aware of it.
The most telling symbol in the painting, for me at least, are the hats the father holds. His own wide-brimmed Stetson is behind and almost completely hidden by the son’s modern pinched pork pie. They speak of the eclipse that is beginning. As John the Baptist says in the gospel, “He must increase, I must decrease.”
What will the boy be like as an educated man? Is he going to Ag school? Will he come back with the all latest know-how to run the ranch far better than his father or his father’s father ever did? Will he be a teacher or even a college professor, living an intellectual life his father cannot even imagine? Or will he be a successful business man, pulling down a substantial income in an air conditioned office, blue suit and tie? When he tells people his father was a rancher, will he say so with pride, or apologetically?
Now Reader, you may be thinking, “How can someone imagine all this stuff just by looking at a picture?” Well, I have been on both sides of this transaction. I was sent off to college by a loving family and I have sent children off to college, to the Service, and (that final home tie breaker) to marriage and the creation of a their own families. I am pretty sure I know what both father and son are thinking because I have been in both their shoes. As a matter of fact, the painting is somewhat autobiographical: Rockwell himself said that he painted it to express the feelings of a father sending his son off to college. At the time, he was sending his sons to college and to the service. (An early sketch that included the mother was discarded. Rockwell’s focus is on the father.) I’d say he got it about right. And I will bet that there are a lot of parents who would agree with my interpretation. The greatest works of art, like this one, always capture essential human experiences. And they afford us deep satisfaction in their contemplation.
More about Rockwell’s “Breaking Home Ties” here: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/30/nyregion/30rockwell.html?ref=normanrockwell