When you think of Norman Rockwell, you think of hundreds of cover illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post and many other magazines from the 1920s through the 1970s.
Imagine half a century of illustration of life in America. Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” illustrate life as the nation navigates its way through the Great Depression and World War II. There are countless other examples of well-known images that have spawned countless calendars, prints, collectibles, and other items that continue to perpetuate what many consider to be the heartland of America.
Norman Rockwell’s work was based at his studios in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He used real people as models for his paintings. Some sat in person for Rockwell, while many others were photographed, and these photographs became the basis of studies of Rockwell for illustrations and magazine covers.
On occasion, Rockwell entered contests from one magazine or another to select a person whose photographs exemplified the purposes of that contest. This is where our story begins.
In 1921, Curtis Publishing Co. sponsored the “Beautiful Boy Contest”. Curtis published the Saturday Evening Post, as well as Country Gentleman and other magazines. Cora Hamilton, from her farm on Chenango Street in the Hillcrest area of the town of Fenton, thought her son George was the prettiest boy. She grabbed her Kodak Brownie camera and snapped two photos of 12-year-old George Hamilton.
One photograph showed young George in a sailor hat with a smile, while the other showed George holding two fox terrier puppies. She sent these two photos to Curtis Publishing, which received them along with 500,000 other photographs from around the country. Half a million images of young boys – sons of countless families across the country. The odds were against Cora Hamilton and young George.
Yet somehow they won. A day after the contest ended, several men from Curtis Publishing showed up at the front door of the Hamilton farm. Norman Rockwell would use the photographs to create a cover for the March 1922 cover of Country Gentleman magazine. He combined the best aspects of both images to create his model boy. He also changed fox terriers to beagles – why? Because Rockwell loved beagles.
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The cover illustration was completed and, as a prize for winning the competition, the painting of the idealized George Hamilton, complete with all his freckles and infectious smile, was delivered to Hamilton’s house.
It would appear that things were going well for the Hamiltons, but George was unhappy with just milking cows and never having fun. A year later, at age 13, he left home and moved into a boarding house in Hillcrest. He peddled milk in a horse-drawn cart. At 18, George moved back to his parents. He drove trucks and the family moved to Quinneville, near North Fenton.
The paint moved from place to place with the Hamiltons. After George’s father died in 1950, George Hamilton removed the painting from the wall and brought it home to Chenango Forks. There the painting hung – darker from years of soot and smoke. Over the years, George stared at the painting, never thinking about its creator and its meaning.
In the late 1970s, a man approached George and offered him $35,000 for Rockwell’s painting. George refused it and put the painting in a bank safe for protection.
As the years passed, George Hamilton began to realize that life had an end date, and in 1983 he made the decision to auction Rockwell’s painting to have enough money to handle some bills and for his own funeral.
On April 30, 1983, this auction was held with David Mapes Auction Services. More than 200 dealers and buyers crammed into the auction room to take a look at this painting and many other items up for sale. When the dust settled that night, Donald S. Trumbull of Florida won the painting with a bid of $37,500. George Hamilton and his wife, Bea, were sorry to see the painting disappear, but happy with the funds received.
A piece of Americana hanging on the walls of local farmhouses – a piece of history.
Gerald Smith is a former Broome County historian. Email him at [email protected]