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An American Romantic

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©SEPS/Licensed by Curtis Licensing
Norman Rockwell: Shuffleton’s Barbershop, 1950

World War II was a boon for Rockwell. He found new subjects like his famous Rosie the Riveter, her pose and muscular torso (to the dismay of the model who provided the head) based closely on Michelangelo’s Isaiah. He also found an enormous audience for the ambitious suite of paintings inspired by FDR’s invocation, in his State of the Union address of 1941, of the “Four Freedoms” that Americans were fighting for. Reproduced as posters, these images of a family around a Thanksgiving table representing “Freedom from Want,” a Lincoln look-alike standing for “Freedom of Speech,” and so on, proved effective propaganda in raising funds for the war effort. Solomon makes big claims for the Thanksgiving scene, “one of the most ambitious plays of white-against-white since Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 1,” but I confess a weakness for the often-maligned “Freedom from Fear,” with its parents, the father holding a newspaper with a headline about bombings, checking on sleeping kids. I like the Japoniste upper patterning of the picture, the rich impasto (rare in Rockwell’s paintings) of the several gradations of white in the bed sheets and the apron of the mother, and the surrealistic doll lying bedraggled on the floor, a child’s version of a bombing victim.

Overworked, her hopes for a writing career dashed by family responsibilities and the chaos of her freelancing husband’s finances, Mary Rockwell descended into alcoholism and mental instability. They had settled, first, in a town in southern Vermont, despite Rockwell’s indifference to the natural landscape, then, in 1953, moved to the picturesque village of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires, where Mary was treated for alcoholism and depression at the prestigious Austen Riggs Center. Solomon argues plausibly that it wasn’t only for Mary’s treatment that Rockwell moved to Stockbridge; he himself was determined to undergo therapy, primarily, it would seem, to seek relief from the incapacitating self-doubt that he experienced with every painting he painfully brought to completion.

One of Solomon’s many surprising revelations is that Rockwell, at Austen Riggs, had seven years of twice-a-week therapy with Erik Erikson, biographer of Gandhi and Martin Luther, who had studied to be an artist as a young man before developing his influential ideas about a necessary “identity crisis” leading to maturity.

As Rockwell recalled: “I ask him, What is it anyway? Why do I have all this trouble with these pictures? He’s very comforting. He says just what I want him to say. He says, Well, that’s the way it is. You want to be an artist? You have to suffer like this.” Rockwell concluded: “This is the old crap, but I guess it’s true.”

Rockwell thrived in therapy; Mary did not. She died in 1959 at the age of fifty-one, apparently of a heart attack although, in the absence of an autopsy and with a previous history of overdoses, as Solomon notes, “suicide was not out of the question.”

Rockwell married for a third time, a Stockbridge native and retired schoolteacher named Molly Punderson whom he’d met in a poetry class for adults that she was teaching, and whose intellectual passion was correct grammar bolstered by a new method she had devised for diagramming sentences. The marriage took all their friends by surprise. Molly Rockwell had lived for many years in a so-called Boston marriage with a fellow teacher. The marriage with Rockwell appears to have been a happy one for both parties. His politics, instinctively conservative, veered to the left during the 1960s, when he voted for John Kennedy, actively opposed the Vietnam War, and painted the single most popular image of the civil rights movement, The Problem We All Live With, the poignant picture of six-year-old Ruby Bridges determinedly walking, schoolbooks in hand, between two federal marshals to her school, desegregated by court order, in New Orleans.

3.

Solomon titles her book American Mirror, as though adopting the old notion that Rockwell depicted ordinary American small-town life and simply painted what he saw. But his creative work seems to have been more private, idiosyncratic, and anxious, as he confided to Erikson. He developed a ritual for coaxing ideas for paintings from what Solomon calls “the storehouse of his imagination”:

Proust had his madeleine and Rockwell had his lamppost. He saw it clearly before him, a lamppost on a quiet street. Then he imagined what could happen to it. A boy climbs up it, a boy falls off of it; someone chases the boy around it. He did this all the time, envisioning the lamppost and waiting for a scene to emerge, a boy or two, a certain facial expression, a story.

Once the idea for a painting was clear in his mind, “he deleted the lamppost.”

If the Romantic movement, as summed up in M.H. Abrams’s influential book The Mirror and the Lamp, replaced mimetic mirrors with lamps of inspiration, then Rockwell with his imaginary lamppost can be seen as quintessentially Romantic. Solomon insists that her title “is not meant to suggest that Rockwell held a mirror up to American life and painted a literal, mimetic version of it. Rather, his work mirrors his own temperament….” For Solomon, those boys frolicking around the lamppost are clues to that temperament. She is not the first to detect a pattern of pedophilia in Rockwell’s images and in his recruitment of models.* “Escorted by the principal, he would wander the halls on weekday mornings and peer into brightly lighted classrooms, in search of boys with the right look,” Solomon reports. “He would come during our lunch hour and pull you into the hall,” one of the models recalled.

“Was Rockwell homosexual?” Solomon asks. While his first two marriages strike her as “less genuine unions than a strategy for ‘passing’ and controlling his homoerotic desires,” she finds “nothing to suggest that he had sex with men,” and believes that his expression of those desires was “confined to his art.” She detects such desires in Before the Shot (1958), in which a young boy—the same one Rockwell “pull[ed]…into the hall”—pulls down his pants so a doctor can administer an injection. To the parents’ surprise, Rockwell stopped by their house one night, finished painting in hand, and “asked for the pants,” claiming, according to the boy who posed for the picture, that he wanted “to see if he had gotten the color right.” “It’s an unsettling anecdote,” Solomon remarks. “Once again we are made to wonder whether Rockwell’s complicated interest in the depiction of preadolescent boys was shadowed by pedophilic impulses.” And yet there is an earlier, discarded version of Before the Shot, in the collection of the Norman Rockwell Museum, and it clearly shows that Rockwell was indeed having trouble getting the color of the boy’s jeans just right.

Even less persuasive is Solomon’s leering analysis of an exchange Rockwell had on television with Edward Murrow in 1959, regarding Rockwell’s dog. “‘We call her Lolito—Lolita,’ Rockwell replied, correcting himself.” There follows this bizarre (if ingenious) chain of association:

None of his children recall a dog named Lolita. What led him to summon up Vladimir Nabokov’s nymphet? Surely he had read his novel Pnin, which includes many clever asides on modern art, including this one: “Dali is really Norman Rockwell’s twin brother kidnapped by gypsies in babyhood.” What was intended as a put-down of Salvador Dalí is also an implicit elevation of Rockwell, whom Nabokov, in a brilliant if acidic insight, viewed as the equal of Dalí. They both used a style of impeccable realism to render imaginary worlds—be it the hypersexual fantasies of Surrealism or Rockwell’s desexed Americana.
And surely he had read Lolita, or read about it. It had been published in the United States the previous summer and generated a firestorm of controversy. Apparently, it inspired Rockwell to nickname a dog after Nabokov’s twelve-year-old seductress. He didn’t appear to be joking. In a way Rockwell was Humbert Humbert’s discreet and careful twin brother, roused by the beauty of children but (thankfully) more repressed.

What is the basis for Solomon’s claim that Rockwell, hardly known as a serious reader, had “surely” read Pnin and Lolita? What evidence is there that Nabokov had sexuality in mind in his comparison of Dalí and Rockwell? And what might nicknaming a dog “Lolito” or “Lolita,” for which there might be many explanations, reveal about Rockwell’s “thankfully” repressed sexual desires for boys?

4.

Solomon spends more time than Rockwell did worrying about his status in comparison with what she calls the “Abstract Expressionist ilk,” who “glamorized direct and unmediated gestures” and dominated highbrow taste during the 1950s. Rockwell, who was remarkably uncompetitive and nonterritorial, said, disarmingly, “If I were young, I would paint that way myself.” The Connoisseur of 1962, a painting now in the collection of Steven Spielberg that Solomon considers a “masterpiece,” depicts a balding man seen from behind, in a gray suit with hat and umbrella in hand, contemplating what seems to be a Pollock painting. The floor, bluish-gray and white squares and triangles, constitutes a contrapuntal abstraction. Rockwell had fun making his own drip painting, canvas on the floor, and had a photographer record the event just as Hans Namuth, in 1950, had famously documented Pollock wielding a can of paint over the canvas. It’s charming to learn that Willem de Kooning, a longtime admirer of Rockwell, claimed to think that Rockwell’s Pollock was better than the real thing. “Square inch by square inch,” he said, “it’s better than Jackson!”

The familiar idea that Rockwell was the commercial artist while Pollock was all authentic spontaneity hasn’t stood up so well lately. Recent research has revealed that Pollock touched up his drips on the easel, in a more calculated process than had been thought. The impression of spontaneity, reinforced by the Namuth photograph, was part of the Pollock brand all along, and contributed to his commercial appeal. It would be amusing if, at this late date, Rockwell came to be viewed as the tortured existentialist while Pollock emerged as the steady worker perfecting his product.

Deborah Solomon’s book is deeply researched, vigorously argued, and very well written. If her occasionally dogged psychological analysis of certain paintings already feels slightly dated, it should be said that we have no competing theory for aligning an artist’s life with his work. She is a sufficiently sophisticated art critic that her ultimate assessment of Rockwell’s work is based less on her notions of his repressed sexual impulses than on the fully realized feats of “looking” that he achieved in his best paintings.

She quotes, approvingly, the modernist painter Lyonel Feininger’s generous response, which captures her own view of Rockwell’s lasting significance. “We’ve met Norman Rockwell several times, and we like him first-rate,” Feininger told the artist Mark Tobey in 1955.

I think it “takes some doing,” “some sterling quality,” to envisage humans as kindly and subtly as he has kept on doing ever since forty years, leaving exhibitionism to those whose urge pushes them into that track…. He achieves what certainly no photograph ever could in an expressively human way, and that compels my admiration and respect. There’s nothing “arty” about the work or the man: a pure miracle, when one considers the epoch we are undergoing.
  1. *

    In his monograph on Rockwell, subtitled “The Underside of Innocence” (University of Chicago Press, 2006), Richard Halpern quotes Rockwell’s artless account of recruiting models. “For days I’d hang around the grade schools at recess,” he wrote, “peer over fences into back yards, haunt the vacant lots, and stop little boys on the street, turning them around and sideways to see if they were the type I wanted.” 

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