MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
The Norman Rockwell illustration called Breaking Home Ties has stumped experts for years. It depicts and working-class father and his teenage son. The boy is headed to college and he's a portrait of anticipation, wearing a wide-eyed expression and his Sunday best suit. But at recent exhibitions, something about that picture was not quite right. The colors looked dull and those eyes lacked emotion. Now the mystery behind those flaws has finally been solved.
BLOCK: The owner of the painting was Donald Trachte Sr., a former neighbor of Norman Rockwell. Trachte loved the painting and was able to keep it when he and his wife divorced. Well, it turns out that Trachte, who died last year, had painted an almost-perfect replica and tucked away the original. So it was a copy that had been on display.
NORRIS: Two weeks ago, his sons found that original hidden in a secret compartment behind a bookcase in Trachte's home. Donald Trachte, Jr. describes where they found it.
Mr. DONALD TRACHTE JR. (Son of owner of Rockwell painting): You could disassemble parts of the bookcase, and then slide a false wall in front of that case and expose a second wall behind it. The reason that my brother discovered this was that over the years the house had settled slightly, and it made a slight gap in the paneling. So when we began to pull the wall apart, that's when we first saw the exposure of two paintings that we hadn't seen in probably 40 years.
NORRIS: Why would he make a replica of that painting, and then why would he hide it?
Mr. TRACHTE: I think that he did it really to preserve for his children. I mean, he told us for years, he said, now, remember, you kids own these paintings. And I think he was always worried about maybe someone might come in and actually steal a painting or something like that.
NORRIS: Your parents divorced in the early 1970s. Did that have anything to do, do you suppose, with your father's decision to tuck the paintings away?
Mr. TRACHTE: Well, it may have been a motivator. But I've been thinking about that over the last few days and I think that the family will need to do a little more digging into this to really figure that out.
NORRIS: Your father, Donald Trachte, Sr., was also an illustrator and he was behind the syndicated comic strip called Henry. But did you know that he had these talents as a painter, someone who could actually make such an almost dead-on copy of a Norman Rockwell painting?
Mr. TRACHTE: No, I certainly was surprised that it could be this accurate. And just couldn't believe it until I actually saw it.
NORRIS: How did your father come to own that painting?
Mr. TRACHTE: Early in 1960, my father and my mother had gone to an exhibit in southern Vermont at the Southern Vermont Art Center in Manchester. And Norman Rockwell had on display, according to my mother, about 24 original Norman Rockwell paintings. And Breaking Home Ties was one of them. My parents both loved this painting, and partly because our neighbor, Floyd Bentley posed as the old man, in the character in that painting.
NORRIS: Where did you keep it when you were a young boy? Was it ever in your family home?
Mr. TRACHTE: Oh, absolutely. The painting just hung in our home, it was in the living room and we saw it all the time. It was just sort of part of the landscape, part of the furniture set, if you will.
NORRIS: When do you suppose your father made that copy? Do you think the painting that you looked at in the living room of your home was the real painting, or was that replica?
Mr. TRACHTE: No, the painting in our living room was the real painting, and that really helped us solve the mystery because when we were children and growing up, we remembered looking at the painting and looking at the boy's eyes. And that was really what drove us to the point that we said something is wrong with the details in the replica.
NORRIS: What did you see in that boy's eyes that you didn't see in the replica?
Mr. TRACHTE: The boy's eyes in the replica weren't as focused, and they didn't have that positive look that the young boy does in the authentic painting.
NORRIS: There is so much in that boy's expression, almost like he's looking down the road, waiting for the bus to come down the road.
Mr. TRACHTE: Well, there really is. In fact, I think that's the whole part of this painting is that you can see the old man who is, in a sense, losing a son and remembering perhaps what life was like for himself and what the future will hold. The young boy is looking down the tracks, and I think the young boy is optimistic. Perhaps the young boy doesn't understand what the future holds for himself, and I think that we've all experienced that, whether it's at a train station or an airport, or a bus station or whatever, and I think that's why it has such an attraction for the American people.
NORRIS: Well, Donald Trachte, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. All the best to you.
Mr. TRACHTE: Thank you very much.
NORRIS: That was Donald Trachte, Jr., speaking about the Norman Rockwell painting, Breaking Home Ties. You can see the original painting and the replica for yourself at our website, NPR.org.