It's going to be a pile of fun to take the basic structure of Frank Dolson's face and create the different characters upon it. He's got a good face. Strong — strong jaw, mouth, nose the broad bridge is a characteristic which will carry through from the pirate to the modern man very nicely." —Norman Rockwell
Listen to a rare audio recording of Norman Rockwell describing the process of working on Family Tree.
In 1959, Rockwell was at work on his autobiography, My Adventures as an Illustrator. Recording his family history may have inspired Rockwell to trace the lineage of an American family in his art, as the final chapter of the book is a day-by-day account of how Family Tree was created.
The basic structure for the painting, a tree, is taken from a twelfth-century Dutch family tree, a photo of which was found for Rockwell by the reference librarian at the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. To simulate the appearance of aged parchment, Rockwell stained the background of his painting with brown paint and sketched in trompe l'oeil cracks. For even greater authenticity, he rubbed dirt, gravel and twigs into his canvas, shook it off, then rubbed in more. He then sandpapered the surface, which he said gave it a "beautiful texture." The consistency of family features through the generations is assured by Rockwell's use of the same model, Frank Dolson, for either the man or woman in each couple on the tree.
The lineage begins with a pirate and a Spanish princess, taken by the pirate from a sinking Spanish galleon. The galleon is based on a painting by Rockwell's favorite illustrator of historical subjects, Howard Pyle, whose initials are on the treasure chest in the sand.
Rockwell loved the idea of having an "all-American" boy descend from a pirate and his stolen Spanish princess, though that notion troubled his friend and therapist Erik Erikson. "Do you think you ought to start off the family with him, a cutthroat, a barbarian?" Erikson asked. Rockwell experimented with changing the pirate to a Puritan, then a buccaneer, but finally returned to the original. "Everybody had a horse thief or two in his family," he said.