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An American Romantic

1.

At the time of his death in 1978 at the age of eighty-four, Norman Percevel Rockwell (who had always hated his fancy, “almost effeminate” middle name) was one of the most popular artists in America and one of the most maligned. Despite the championing, late in his career, of, among others, John Updike and Andy Warhol (who, not surprisingly, bought Rockwell’s portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy), and a retrospective exhibition that traveled to seven US museums including the Guggenheim between 1999 and 2002, the suspicion has lingered—and Rockwell himself was not immune to it—that perhaps he shouldn’t have been considered an artist at all, as opposed to an illustrator (as he called himself in his charming memoirs) or, worse, a hack purveyor of kitsch, churning out his annual calendar design for the Boy Scouts or, for Hallmark, a Christmas card of Santa asleep on the job.

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©SEPS/Licensed by Curtis Licensing
Norman Rockwell: Triple Self-Portrait, 1960

Did Rockwell’s principal artistic achievement, his 323 designs for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post from 1916 to 1963, really amount to a body of work comparable in any significant way to Edward Hopper’s, say, or Jackson Pollock’s? Or was he merely an ingratiating epigone to the Golden Age of Illustration, rounding off, during an era of photography, the waning narrative tradition of his idol, the Quaker depicter of pirates Howard Pyle, and Rockwell’s immediate predecessor at the Post, the now forgotten Joseph Leyendecker, creator of the Arrow Collar Man? Rockwell had nothing against modern art and considered Picasso “the greatest of them all.” He gamely, if one suspects not very seriously, tried his hand at Fauvism and abstraction, only to be reminded by his editors of his true audience.

To complicate matters, it isn’t entirely clear what Rockwell’s body of work consists of. Was it the published covers themselves, the designs often straying outside the frame and artfully incorporating the name of the magazine? Or was it the painstakingly executed oil paintings on which the covers were based, carefully framed like Dutch Masters, darkened with seemingly antique layers of varnish, and delivered by hand to the offices of the Curtis publishing firm in Philadelphia, only to be given away afterward or put aside as of no value? “I got paid for it once,” he told a dealer, in 1968, who had offered $2,500 for a painting already “bought” for a cover design by the Post. “I don’t need to be paid again.” Three such paintings will be auctioned off at Sotheby’s in December and—such are the changing fortunes of Rockwell’s reputation—one of them, Saying Grace, is expected to fetch upward of $15 million.

Like the work of other artists once dismissed as producers of nostalgic Americana—“big paydays for small-town mush,” in the caustic phrase of Benjamin DeMott, who also mentioned Frank Capra and Thornton Wilder—Rockwell’s paintings have become more interesting over time. The old battles over what should be excluded from the “canon” have waned, while Rockwell’s narrow world of mainly white, WASP, small-town New Englanders, reinforcing the ethos and readership of the Post, can now be seen as an invented construct comparable to Georgia O’Keeffe’s lapidary West. Peter Schjeldahl, enthusiastically reviewing a traveling exhibition of Rockwell’s work in 1973 for The New York Times, noted the convergence between Rockwell’s photography-based work and the Photo-Realists, “the most radical wing of current American painting,” and concluded, “the gap between Rockwell and modernism is just a gap, not a battle line.”

As their topical subjects recede—the GIs returning home and the girls in curlers preparing for the prom—we are free to register how Rockwell incorporated abstraction into his designs, as the art critic Deborah Solomon notes in her sympathetic and probing new biography, as well as autobiographical allusions. “The thrill of his work,” she contends, “is that he was able to use a commercial form to thrash out his private obsessions, to turn a formula into an expressive personal genre.” The carefully contrived clutter of Rockwell’s interiors—sometimes clues to a narrative though not, apparently, always so—can recall the boxes of Joseph Cornell, about whom Solomon wrote an excellent biography, or the crowded staged interiors of the photographer Jeff Wall.

In a painting like the enigmatic Shuffleton’s Barbershop of 1950 (a poster of which hung in Updike’s bathroom), the array of disparate objects, including a gun and a black cat, seems like a rebus with an elusive key (see illustration below). We view the barbershop interior, vacant except for the cat (the real-life Shuffleton said he didn’t have one) that directs our stare through the plate-glass window with paint peeling on the wooden frame and through an illuminated door. There, in a distant interior room, we can make out three men playing, in turn, a cello, a violin, and a clarinet—by no means a typical barbershop quartet, the subject of a previous Rockwell painting.

The mysterious aura of the picture, with its central, illuminated void that is a feature of many of Rockwell’s strongest paintings, can’t be dispelled by the identification of the barbershop—Solomon is always alert to possible homoerotic themes in Rockwell’s work—as “a site of licensed physical contact between men, a place where men touch other men.” The mood is more like Willa Cather’s masterly and similarly enigmatic story “Two Friends,” from Obscure Destinies (1932), in which the young narrator overhears two bighearted businessmen talking in an interior office at night, the words inaudible but the tone of the words suggesting the richness and mystery of life itself.

2.

Once Rockwell discovered his vocation, he seems to have had neither time nor energy for much else, besides an occasional trip to California or Paris. He did not, as Solomon observes, have a Norman Rockwell childhood. His father was a struggling salesman in New York City. His Anglophile mother (responsible for “Percevel”) was a hypochondriac. Rockwell grew up in boardinghouses around Manhattan, with the family sharing meals with other residents. Despite the ubiquitous fishing poles and helter-skelter exploits of the hyperactive boys in his paintings, Rockwell was a shy and spindly indoor kid who, by his own admission, “didn’t know a red maple from a brown bear.” Probably dyslexic, he could do nothing well in school—Solomon calls his transcript “an alarming document”—except for his drawing.

Rockwell dropped out of high school to study illustration in New York, winning a prize at the Art Students League in 1912 for a Rembrandt-inspired illustration for Oliver Goldsmith’s pastoral poem “The Deserted Village.” He had his big break in 1916, when he had two paintings accepted by the Post, the weekly magazine with the largest circulation in the country. In his first cover, Rockwell’s mastery and strangeness are already in full play. Boy with Baby Carriage is composed as a tricolor vignette, its tightly executed subject vanishing in freely painted brushstrokes around the white periphery. The outsize carriage, with the baby’s presence suggested only by a bit of bonnet and a jutting orange shoe, looms diagonally in the center of the painting, a black void like a hole in the canvas. The boy pushing the carriage wears, incongruously, a pinstripe suit, leather gloves, a bowler hat tethered like a child’s mittens to one lapel and a carnation in the other. Instead of a handkerchief, he sports a baby bottle in his breast pocket—“an oversize female-looking nipple,” Solomon suggests. Two other boys (the same model posed for all three) in baseball uniforms taunt the babysitter.

It is tempting to interpret such a picture as representing Rockwell’s private fears as an effeminate boy, “his overall exclusion,” as Solomon puts it, “from the realm of male athleticism” during the strenuous era of Teddy Roosevelt. In fact, there’s nothing effeminate about the demeanor of the reluctant babysitter, who seems about to take a swing at the bullies, one of whom tips his hat derisively. If “Rockwell’s genius was cinematic rather than graphic,” as Henry Zerner and Charles Rosen suggested at the time of the traveling retrospective, that genius is already on display in this kinetic painting, published a year after Chaplin’s bowler-hatted The Tramp was released. Rockwell had a lively interest in the movies; his cover design of Gary Cooper as The Texan (1930) shows a grizzled makeup artist, cigar between his lips, applying lipstick to the star’s patiently proffered lips. “Cooper, the quintessential cowboy, is exposed as a guy who wears lipstick and whose virility is literally a put-on,” says Solomon.

It seems to have dawned on Rockwell, flush with his success at the Post, that a wife might be useful for the advancement of his career. Having shown little previous interest in women, he abruptly proposed to a third-grade teacher living in his boardinghouse named Irene O’Connor. One week after the wedding, the bride moved in with her parents for two months. The hastily arranged marriage lasted, improbably, for thirteen years, with Rockwell holed up in his studio for most of the day and evening, sharing company, when he wanted it, with his boy models and his fellow illustrators, until Irene, in 1929, had had enough.

Rockwell married again, a year later, when, on a trip to California, he met an aspiring young writer named Mary Barstow, educated at Stanford. They had three sons, who often, growing up, modeled for their father. When a profile of Rockwell appeared in The New Yorker, in 1945, the children learned, for the first time, of their father’s previous marriage. Midcentury American fathers could be notoriously distant from their children, but Rockwell, “an ineffectual and distracted father,” according to Solomon, seems to have been conspicuously absent, physically and emotionally. “There was a hollowness where the family was supposed to be,” his son Jarvis, also an artist, recalled.

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