• Email
  • Print

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.

benfey_1-121913.jpg
©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.

benfey_2-121913.jpg
©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.” 

  • Email
  • Print