Man Painting Flagpole (Gilding the Eagle), 1928
oil on canvas
68.6 x 53.3 cm. (27 x 21 in.)
signed Norman Rockwell (lower right)
Catalogue Note Sotheby's
The present work originally appeared on the May 26, 1928 cover of The Saturday Evening Post. Described by Norman Rockwell as “one of my best of this period,” the painting features one of his favorite models of the 1920s, James K. Van Brunt. An ideal model and source of inspiration, Van Brunt posed for Rockwell in a wide variety of narratives and as numerous characters, including a cowboy (Dreams of Long Ago, 1927, Private Collection), and two old ladies gossiping (The Gossips, 1929, Private Collection). In Man Painting the Flagpole, Brunt sits near the top of a lofty flagpole, holding himself upright with one arm as he diligently gilds the stately eagle that adorns its pinnacle. A faint, city skyline appears in the distance beneath him. With an extra paintbrush in his pocket and a bucket of gold paint at his side, he methodically completes his work while puffing on a pipe that protrudes from underneath his bushy mustache. The composition emphasizes the patriotic symbolism of the American eagle, white simultaneously portraying a sympathetic view of people at work—a theme Rockwell revisited throughout his career.
Later in life, Rockwell recalled the day that the diminutive but enthusiastic Van Brunt arrived at his studio in New Rochelle: “I remember it was June and terribly hot…Suddenly the downstairs door banged and I heard someone come up the stairs treading on each step with a loud, deliberate thump. My word, I thought, here comes a monster. A sharp, peremptory knock rattled the door…The door was thrust open and a tiny old man with a knobby nose, an immense, drooping mustache, and round, heavy-lidded eyes stamped bellicosely into the studio. ‘James K. Van Brunt, sir’ he said, saluting me and bowing all at once. ‘Five feet two inches tall, sir. The exact height of Napoleon Bonaparte.’… And he rapped his cane on the floor and looked at me very belligerently. Then, having ascertained that I wasn’t going to contradict him, he took off his gloves and his wide-brimmed hat, laid them on a chair, and patted his mustache. ‘This mustache, sir,’ he said, ‘is eight full inches wide from tip to tip. The ladies, sir, make much of it.’ And he winked at me and walked over to my mirror to stare at his mustache” (Norman Rockwell, Norman Rockwell: My Adventures as an Illustrator, New York, 1994, p. 203).
From the outset, it was Van Brunt’s magnificent mustache—neatly trimmed, parted in the middle, and swept downward—that attracted Rockwell, and he immediately began to sketch the man, claiming “What a face! And mine…all mine" (Rockwell, p. 203). That night, Rockwell began his first Post cover featuring Van Brunt, and a long working relationship and friendship commenced. Rockwell later fondly described the day that the old man first appeared at his studio as being “one of the luckiest days of my life” (Rockwell, p. 203).