I DIDN’T NEED TO KNOW about art to know about Norman Rockwell; it seems I arrived in the world already conscious of him. As a child one Thanksgiving in Texas, I pressed my grandmother to hold back the electric knife from our turkey long enough for a photograph to be taken with the bird intact, glorious and complete on the plate as in the Rockwell’s Freedom from Want, 1943. My grandmother knew the image and understood my goal. As soon as the camera snapped, however, she went right to cutting, pulling, and plating the desecrated bird. Rockwell or no Rockwell, we still served Thanksgiving dinner on plastic plates, buffet style, with people moving in and away from the table in intervals, attending to kids, returning for seconds. We still argued. Not everyone was happy to see each other.
The friction between Rockwell’s image and my reality was absurd, but this absurdity is something that Rockwell was actually deft at portraying. I can be just as disillusioned with American rituals as the next person, yet it took Deborah Solomon’s new biography for me to notice that in Rockwell’s celebrated image “no one is glancing at the massive roasted turkey or the white-haired grandma solemnly carrying it.” The turkey is hardly a sacrament the family is focused on receiving. No one is actually giving thanks at Rockwell’s table, surprisingly, and Solomon is astute to add that the subject of this painting is “not just the sanctity of American traditions, but the casualness with which Americans treat them.”
As she explains it, Solomon’s interest in Rockwell evolved from a feeling that he represented a side of American life in which she was not included, “the part of American culture that did not unfurl in Greenwich Village or represent the counterculture […] the part that lies beyond (some would say beneath) the official story of art.” Solomon definitely knows the official story, having published respected biographies on both Jackson Pollock as well as the hermetic, eccentric artist Joseph Cornell. Rockwell, in comparison, is something else entirely.
To her surprise, though, Solomon came to find Rockwell a worthy subject for a biography. The more she examined his life, the more she saw an obsessive and flawed man, someone who felt at a distance from the very scenes that he painted. By being the face (literally the cover) of The Saturday Evening Post, Rockwell created the most widely distributed picture of what it meant to live in America during some of the most pivotal events in the country’s history. Yet personally, he felt alienated from the images he created, as if his life was out of step with the warm-hearted old fogies and smiling red-headed Boy Scouts that he imagined at the heart of the American experience. Solomon’s biography of Rockwell, in that it uses the illustrator as a mirror for how Americans separate their realities from their fantasies, becomes a sort of history of the collective delusion of how Americans write the stories they “tell themselves to live,” as Joan Didion once put it.
The difference between the reality of Rockwell’s life and the images he made appears early in his life story. He was born in New York City in 1894. His father, Waring, sold textiles while his mother, Nancy, spent most of her time in bed or laying on the couch with various maladies. Rockwell thought his mother neglected him and that his father was weak, not remotely the “gee willikers” childhood that he would become famous for portraying.
However, Rockwell’s childhood also doesn’t sound quite as bleak as the one the artist would describe in his 1960 autobiography. There, he spoke of his mother as the sickly center of the house, all but ignoring him, but the facts are different. According to Solomom, Nancy Rockwell actually supported her son’s early artistic efforts, even arranging for him to get out of high school early to take extra art classes at the New York School of Art and then the National Academy of Design. His brother and his friends would destroy Rockwell’s drawings while playing (a traumatic fact to be sure), but all signs point to Rockwell having had a nurturing home for his artistic gifts.
Rockwell’s early interest in illustration seems to have hinged on his perceived inadequacy, his feeling that he was not the favorite of the family, that he played second fiddle to his more athletic brother Jarvis. Skinny with bad eyesight, Rockwell was out of sync with what could be considered Theodore Roosevelt’s America: the idea that a man could make himself strong through work and perseverance; the world of the frontiersman and the roughneck. The artist’s imagined physical deficiencies fed into his love of images that promoted the mighty American male. Young Rockwell had a taste for the swashbuckling adventurous pirates of Howard Pyle and the heroic horseback heroes of Frederic Remington. For Rockwell, illustration was a ripe area for projection from the very beginning.
Rockwell’s family moved to Mamaroneck, New York, in 1906, but he commuted between the suburb and Manhattan from 1911 to 1912 to study illustration at the Students League. His need to be an illustrator was single minded and total. As his fellow students at the League fell in love with the burgeoning bohemia of New York, Rockwell would be home to Mamaroneck in time for supper. And while his fellow students were being introduced to the avant-garde of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Marcel Duchamp at the Armory Show of 1913, Rockwell was climbing stairwells across New York pitching his realist illustrations. He began illustrating for Boy’s Life magazine when he was only 18 years old. His job would take him to New York, but Rockwell remained firm in the suburbs, more comfortable in the boarding house that his parents shared with an assortment of sundry citizens that would populate Rockwell’s art for his entire life.
Norman Rockwell had one goal: to work for The Saturday Evening Post, the most popular and largest circulating magazine in America. The magazine actually came out on Thursday, but as Solomon writes, “No one waited until the weekend to open it. Husbands and wives and precocious children vied to get hold of the latest issue in much the same way that future generations would vie over access to the household telephone or remote control.” The magazine was based in Philadelphia and pitched the dubious claim that it was founded by Benjamin Franklin (though its only connection to him was that it was published from the same building where he had his print shop). Rockwell saw the Post as the Mount Olympus of illustration and its famous cover (which did not have to be connected with the contents of the magazine at all) as the most direct conduit for his art to reach the widest possible public.
Rockwell and his parents moved to New Rochelle, New York, in 1914, a move apparently in support of Rockwell’s goal to work for the Post (another flaw in Rockwell’s portrayal of his mother as unsupportive). In the same way that avant-garde art had Paris, the world of illustration had New Rochelle. It was the home of Remington, Pyle, and Arrow Collar Man inventor J.C. Leyendecker, as well as cartoonists Frederick Opper, Clare Briggs, and Clyde Forsythe. When Rockwell landed in the town, he arrived at the very source of America’s golden age of illustration.
Surprisingly, there was not much struggle for Rockwell to ascend to his job at the Post. He took the train from New Rochelle and simply went to see the chief editor George Horace Lorimer. The match seemed meant to be. Rockwell had the benign humor, mass appeal, and skill that the magazine was looking for. His manner as an artist was direct and simple, using well-crafted one-liners about society and everyday life that anyone could recognize. The Post and Rockwell would become synonymous. In 322 covers spaced out between 1916 and 1963, Rockwell worked with the magazine through the major events of the 20th century: two world wars, the Depression, the New Deal, and eight presidents. His last cover for the Post would be the issue after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
Solomon, in American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, attempts to give an account of Rockwell’s life vis-à-vis the illustrations he was showing the United States at the Post during those 47 years. The cliché about Rockwell is to consider him a small town cornball, a simple square, the type of diligent Ward Cleaver father who jokes with his boys and dotes on his little girls. Another way of viewing him is as Saint Joseph describes the life of George Bailey in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life: “Like everybody else, on V-E day he wept and prayed. On V-J day, he wept and prayed again,” a man swept up by the times and trying to be simply good. What Solomon shows is that it is a fallacy to move from Rockwell’s work into an account of Rockwell’s life. Actually Rockwell was like most Americans: he presented one image to the world while keeping the truth to himself.
Most of the assumptions about the artist are wrong. Rockwell neither wept nor prayed. He was modest, not outgoing, a bad businessman, and painfully aware of his own limitations. He was an inattentive father and an even more inattentive husband. His first marriage to Irene O’Conner was quickly arranged in 1916 (a whirlwind marriage with no courtship which many saw as a response to his brother Jarvis’s recent engagement) and ended with a whimper in 1930 due to what seems a mutual lack of interest in each other. His second marriage to Mary Barstow ended in Mary’s death of coronary heart disease, most likely brought on by alcoholism mixed with acute depression. Prone to depression himself his entire life, Rockwell spent a great deal of time in therapy, particularly with the famous analyst Erik Erikson. Scene after scene in Solomon’s book describes Rockwell as removed from the warmth of this own images, as someone quite unable to embody the roles set forth in them. Instead, “He saw himself as a collection of frailties,” Solomon writes, “and deemed all faiths equally ineffective for his personal needs.”
In response to his frailties, Rockwell created images of ordinary American eccentricities, but with the caveat that these flaws were not only okay but also funny. Rockwell’s great fib and most comfortable fantasy was a charming one: that society forgives and even treasures our small clumsiness. Take Girl at Mirror, 1954. We find one of John Singer Sargent’s little girls now in the world of Look magazine. She is trying on makeup and she stares intently at her reflection in the mirror, a magazine cover girl image sitting folded on her lap. The little girl feels inadequate, worried about her own self-value. We sympathize. Perhaps we too have had these moments of doubt. Ultimately, the image says, “Yes, we don’t match up to our fantasies, but it’s not the end of the world.” This acceptance and warmth was not something, however, Rockwell ever seemed to experience much of personally.
Rockwell was always separate, a voyeur to the forgiving outlook of his images. In one of his most famous illustrations, Saying Grace, 1951, various men look up from their coffee and newspapers to see a recognizable but still unusual scene of a grandmother and her grandson praying. We, the viewers, are blocked from them by a slanted table in the foreground as though we are Rockwell himself, a mere onlooker. Rockwell does not let us in and declare this to be our reality. In what may be Rockwell’s best image, Shuffleton’s Barbershop, 1950, the viewer looks through a window, through a room, and again, through a door to find a company of amateur musicians in the back of a shop after hours. This is a club we are not quite part of.
In 1938, Rockwell, with his second wife Mary Barstow, moved from New Rochelle to Vermont, and in terms of his renown, it was around this time he hit his stride as an illustrator. In 1942, he pitched the idea that would be his most recognizable legacy, illustrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” (Freedom from Want, Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Worship, and Freedom from Fear), which the president had used in his 1941 address to Congress in the face of the war. Before offering the images to the Post, Rockwell went to the United States Office of War Information (OWI) and was rejected. However, Rockwell proceeded and the images appeared in four successive Post covers in 1943. Once the images hit the mailboxes of America, the response was overwhelming (60,000 reader letters to the Post) enough that the OWI, in a reversal, printed 2.5 million of the paintings as posters and used them in the effort to sell war bonds. “His work did not attempt to explain the battles or the bloodshed, the dead and injured, the obliteration of towns,” Solomon writes, “The war wasn’t just about killing the enemy. It was also about saving a way of life.”
In a way, Solomon’s book pivots around her discussion of the Four Freedoms. Through the covers, Rockwell, “once known as the Boy Illustrator […] became enshrined as America’s leading Painter-Patriot.” Strangely (contrary to spectacles that endear artists to us these days), the Four Freedoms are persuasive in their smallness, in the humility of their subject matter. The people in these images simply eat, speak, pray, and tuck in their kids. They are flawed, not glamorous, and recognizable not in that they are celebrities but in that they represent ordinary people. They are also notable in their lack of difference: the Post had an abhorrent policy of not allowing African Americans to be portrayed in any role other than subservient. The Four Freedoms are simple hearted propaganda, pitched to a country at war to justify its efforts, but also a record of America’s own ability to filter how it sees itself, to include what it wants and exclude what it doesn’t.
What Solomon would like us to do as readers (and in this task she is quite successful) is to consider the gap between Rockwell the Man and Rockwell the Illustrator as part of a force that molded the American fantasy during the rise of popular culture. Rockwell, in order to embody our collective myths, whitewashed the more troubling aspects of both his life and our shared heritage as Americans. What is important, however, is the knowledge that this is still our world, in a way. We still whitewash reality. Rockwell’s images have now given way to fashion advertising, the sitcom, and the self-help book. Though one could argue, the forgiving, comic frailty that served as Rockwell’s bread and butter for 50 years no longer exists in popular media, it is no longer okay to be removed from perfection.
In the short time that American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell has been on shelves, it is not Solomon’s presentation of this valuable history of American self-image and the rise and change of popular culture that has been the story in reviews. Instead, most attention has been paid to her speculations on Rockwell’s sexuality. Evidence of Rockwell’s perhaps repressed homosexuality accumulates throughout Solomon’s account of the illustrator’s life. First, Rockwell claimed to have no deftness of painting or drawing of women, therefore most of his work involves the relationship between men. Also, Rockwell had long relationships with his boy and male models, including a need early during his marriage to Mary Barstow to take an extended camping trip with his assistant Fred Hildebrand. He had an uncharacteristically warm attachment to the gay illustrator J.C. Leyendecker and his brother Frank, and, as a climax to Solomon’s account of Rockwell’s repression, he confessed during therapy to having “overly intense relationships” with men. Reviewers have their differing opinions about whether it all adds up, and Rockwell’s family is upset with these speculations, “finding no fewer than 96 factual errors and omissions,” The Boston Globe reports. The family claims to have known a much different, much less repressed man than the one Solomon presents.
It is a shame that Solomon’s speculations on Rockwell have become the story of the biography, and perhaps it is Solomon’s fault. She does, at times, go a bridge too far, as in riding the fact that Rockwell had a dog named Lolita into “Rockwell was Humbert Humbert’s discreet and careful twin brother, roused by the beauty of children but (thankfully) more repressed.” Solomon often finds herself in such interpretive frenzies, bouncing between the biography to the work and back to the biography with an abandon that is often fruitful but sometimes silly. Do we need to know that Rockwell was gay to know that he was repressed?
The real story of Rockwell’s life is a case that Solomon makes well, that Rockwell as illustrator shows the evolution of what Americans expected from their consumption and what we now expect. We are now too sexy for Rockwell’s manners and warm-hearted small towners. We are too smart. We have memories of horror, we see how that culture suppressed civil rights and imperialistically used these simple visions to take wars abroad, as excuses to protect what is only self-interest. We can’t be complacent with simple affirmative images anymore.
All of these valid arguments, however, do not erase the fact that there is something that continues to resonate from Rockwell’s work. There are still small, funny moments today as in Rockwell’s day, of children committing small sins that they take in their mind to be large ones and the subsequent comedy of being stern with them. However, we are more used to the alarming sides of life. “Kindness, comedy, and forgiving tristesse are not the norm,” Dave Hickey once wrote of Rockwell’s work, “They signify our little victories — and working toward democracy consists of nothing more or less than the daily accumulation of little victories whose uncommon loveliness we must, somehow, speak or show.”
Ed Schad is a writer and curator living in Los Angeles. He writes for Art Review, Art Slant, and The Brooklyn Rail, among other publications. Most of his writing can be found on his blog, www.icallitoranges.blogspot.com.