Books & Ideas | Arts & Culture

An America That Never Was: Norman Rockwell's Vision

December 09, 2013
Norman Rockwell's studio in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith.
 
American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell
Deborah Solomon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30.00 (cloth)
 

Seventy years after the appearance of the Four Freedoms sequence, among Norman Rockwell’s best-known works, the artist continues to be derided as an assembly-line purveyor of sentimental kitsch, a victim of his own popularity and of the changing tastes of the late twentieth century.

But that judgment isn’t damning. An American Art Museum exhibition recently featured his paintings from the collections of George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg. And on December 4, seven of his paintings went on the block at Sotheby’s, where his Saying Grace netted $46 million, tripling the previous record for a Rockwell sale.

Today viewers can admire Rockwell’s humor and eye for detail while dismissing the end result as saccharine and self-consciously folksy, embodying a mid-century patriotism and optimism that most Americans no longer feel or even recognize. For instance, nearly all of the figures in his pre-1960s work were white. His masters at the Saturday Evening Post, the magazine whose covers he illustrated from 1916 until 1963, refused to let him depict African Americans in anything but subservient roles.

It was a situation Rockwell attempted to remedy with his most influential and perhaps greatest work, The Problem We All Live With. Run as a two-page spread in Look magazine in 1964, after Rockwell had left the Post, the painting was inspired by Ruby Bridges, the first African American to enter an all-white grade school in New Orleans after court-ordered desegregation. Rockwell’s painting shows the first grader, escorted by federal marshals, determined and staring straight ahead. She ignores the concrete wall beside her, painted with the word “nigger”and the letters “K.K.K.,” and she ignores the unseen, ugly crowd that stands where we, the viewers, stand. The marshals are seen only from the shoulders down, emphasizing the girl’s solitude, and courage.

Five decades later the painting retains its power. Yet at the same time it demonstrates what the U.K. critic Mark Hudson calls “a peculiarly American approach to external conflict: the idea that it is what is being defended that counts; what is being fought about and against is almost irrelevant.” It is an acute insight into Rockwell’s work. His gaze nearly always focused not just on the home front but also on an idealized representation of home and comfort. His were not so much reflections of our country’s innocence as visions of an America that never was.

As Deborah Solomon writes in her expansive yet oddly superficial American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, “Rockwell’s art, however accessible, keeps his deepest inspirations hidden from view.” And they remain hidden, even as she takes readers on a long journey from Yonkers, where Rockwell’s maternal grandfather painted domestic chickens and game birds such as grouse and quail; to New Rochelle, where he lived alongside successful illustrators and artists such as Joseph Leyendecker (creator of the Arrow Collar Man) and Coles Phillips; to Arlington, the Vermont village where his flinty neighbors posed for myriad Saturday Evening Post covers; to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, another quaint New England town.

Rockwell began drawing when he was six or seven years old, copying cigarette cards. Other childhood influences were books illustrated by Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth. And his father used to read Dickens aloud to his children, which suggests young Norman would also have seen the work of George Cruikshank and John Leech, noted illustrators of Dickens’s novels and stories. Gangly and unhappy with his appearance, “a bean pole without the beans,” as he wrote in his 1960 autobiography My Adventures as an Illustrator, Rockwell left high school at sixteen and entered art school. His work became his life.

“I put everything into my work,” he wrote.

I feel that I don’t have anything else, that I must keep working or I’ll go back to being pigeon-toed, narrow-shouldered—a lump. When I was younger I used to work night and day, possessed by a sort of panic that I’d lose everything if I didn’t drive myself. . . . the drive is still in me. People ask me why I don’t take vacations or retire altogether. I can’t stop work, that’s the long and short of it.

The panic never went away. Despite the domestic warmth captured in his illustrations, the adult Rockwell was emotionally reticent, depressive, and plagued by near-constant anxiety. He had years of therapy with the famed psychologist Erik Erikson, who came up with the term “identity crisis” to describe a critical stage in human development when an adolescent grapples with various “identity fragments” and attempts to integrate them into a healthy psyche. It is a condition that Solomon’s Rockwell seems to embody. He wed three times, twice impulsively; none of his wives appears to have been a love match. Summing up his first marriage, which lasted fourteen years, he said, “It wasn’t particularly unhappy, but it certainly did not have any of the warmth and love of a real marriage.”

Solomon's book is less mirror than telescope, peering through gaps in the curtains for glimpses of the unsavory in the artist’s life.

He had three children with his second wife, Mary, an alcoholic who was repeatedly hospitalized for depression. A major impetus behind the family’s move to Stockbridge was the presence there of the Austen Riggs Center, a well-known psychiatric hospital where Mary and Tom, one of the Rockwell’s three sons, had spent time. According to Solomon, Rockwell believed Mary “had trouble harmonizing with anyone besides psychiatrists.” It is something that might have been said of the hypochondriac Rockwell, who made a point of surrounding himself with doctors, going so far as to rent a garage apartment to an Austen Riggs psychiatrist and his family.

His late-life marriage to a retired schoolteacher, like him a septuagenarian, appears to have been content.

• • •

Rockwell took pains to refer to himself as an illustrator rather than a fancy-schmancy artist.

“The story is the first thing and the last thing,” he said in a taped lecture at the Art Center School in Pasadena in 1948. To gauge a painting’s success, he’d observe a viewer’s reaction to it.

If you came in, I would just wait to see if you laughed or not. I just love that. That isn’t what a fine-art man goes for. I don’t care whether it is art or not. And by the way, I always say that, and then I have to put in an argument that it is art.

While Rockwell’s artwork is often dismissed as kitsch, most of it lacks the most distinctive feature of kitsch—pretentiousness. An exception is the set of illustrations he did for Look in the 1960s and early 1970s, presidential portraits and attempts to illuminate serious social issues of the day, with titles such as How Goes the War on Poverty?, The Peace Corps (J.F.K.’s Bold Legacy), and The Right to Know. Few of these have anything like the power of The Problem We All Live With.

That power may have emerged from Rockwell’s association with child psychiatrist Robert Coles, a colleague of Erikson’s who witnessed Ruby Bridges being escorted to school. Coles volunteered to counsel Bridges during this period. In 1963 he published a study of the psychological effects of desegregation on African American children, and went on to write Children of Crisis: A Study of Courage and Fear. Solomon notes that Rockwell probably read Cole’s 1963 study, and it’s easy to imagine that he was deeply affected by it (he illustrated Coles’s 1968 Dead End School, another book about desegregation). Bridges didn’t model for Rockwell’s painting, but he captured the self-assurance and dignity of the little girl.

Solomon is rightly dismissive of those who refuse to see the artistic merits of Rockwell’s paintings. Yet American Mirror engages in more pop psychology than it does serious analysis of Rockwell’s work or its influences upon American popular culture. It is less mirror than telescope, peering through gaps in the curtains for glimpses of the unsavory in the artist’s life. The book suffers from le vice americaine, that tendency to reduce every life to childhood or sexual trauma or dysfunction or, ideally, all of the above. In Rockwell’s case, there were mother issues (she, too, was a hypochondriac), an ineffectual father, and an older brother who was a star athlete, “a real boy’s boy” whom Rockwell grew estranged from.

Most of all, there is the question of Rockwell’s sexual identity: Was he a repressed homosexual? And did he have a secret thing for young boys?

Solomon isn’t the first to explore sexual undercurrents in Rockwell’s work. In 2006 Richard Halpern’s Norman Rockwell: Underside of Innocence made many of the same points that Solomon does. John Waters’s late films gleefully explode Rockwell’s vision of a more innocent America. He told Solomon, “That painting he did about the little black girl walking . . . inspired Lil’ Inez in Hairspray.” Pecker, the innocent savant obsessively photographing his friends and neighbors (including male and female strippers) in Waters’s eponymous film, could be a sweetly perverse shutterbug stand-in for Rockwell. David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks can be seen as sexualized subversions of Rockwell’s golden age vision of small-town America, just as Lynch’s The Straight Story is a Disney-produced homage to the Rockwellian ideal. “Norman Rockwell meets Hieronymus Bosch,” as Lynch’s sound mixer described Blue Velvet. “I love his work,” Lynch told Solomon in a 2008 interview.

Solomon presents a great deal of anecdotal evidence for Rockwell’s repressed homosexuality. She makes much of a 1934 fishing trip the forty-year-old Rockwell made with his studio assistant Fred Hildebrandt, five years his junior. The two shared a bunk in a remote Quebec camp, with their guides in the upper bunk. In his diary Rockwell writes, “Fred is most fetching in his long flannels” and later, “We paddle to portage near a waterfall. I strip and frollick about—see photos.”

“All of this,” Solomon writes, “is suggestive material, up to and including the ‘lick’ in his spelling of ‘frollick.’”

Really? Given Rockwell’s reticence, would he truly have left a written record of anything that would suggest physical impropriety with another man? Whatever Rockwell’s predilections might have been, Solomon seems almost comically off the mark here. Her speculations take a somewhat darker turn when she discusses Before the Shot, a 1958 Post cover. It shows an eight-year-old boy holding up his pants so that part of his bare backside is exposed. The doctor behind him prepares a needle as the boy stares suspiciously at the doctor’s medical diploma hanging on the wall. The painting is meant to be funny—it is funny, if you can put any thoughts of pedophilia from your mind, which Solomon believes is almost impossible to do in twenty-first century America.

Most of Rockwell’s work is not even illustration in the purest sense of that word, but invention.

Solomon also sees latent homoeroticism in The Runaway, in which the same young model, hobo’s bindlestick on the floor beside him, is painted sitting in a diner with the kindly cop who is buying him lunch before taking him home to his parents. The diner’s amused owner leans expectantly on the counter, presumably waiting for the boy to decide what he wants to eat.

“The officer represents the warm arm of the law,” Solomon writes:

authority at its paternal best; he’s the quintessential Officer Friendly. On closer reading, however, the cop can be seen as a figure of tantalizing masculinity, a muscle man in a skintight uniform and boots. There is something sensual about the expanse of his massive back, the sharp creases in his shirt formed where the fabric pulls.

Solomon also raises an eyebrow over Rockwell’s long affiliation with the Boy Scouts of America, first as a longtime illustrator for Boys’ Life, and later as illustrator of the Boy Scout calendars, which he drew nearly every year between 1925 and 1976, two years before he died.

Solomon’s suggestion that repressed homosexuality was the dark wound that bled into Rockwell’s work is not necessarily wrong, but who knows? And who cares? It is a blinkered view, and her zeal to unearth hidden meanings contributes to some odd readings of individual paintings, as with her analysis of Saying Grace, the Thanksgiving-themed 1951 Post cover and record-seller. The painting shows a grandmother and grandson, formally if not expensively dressed, saying grace in a crowded restaurant to the bemusement of other, more casual diners. Solomon eloquently describes the work as “a ballet of gazes, a delicate interplay of actions and reactions that together affirm the power [of] . . . the act of looking.” She goes on to note:

A smattering of backward, Cubist-style lettering on the window—“TNARU”—spells the end of the word restaurant while containing the anagram UN-ART and suggesting the self-mocking message U R an ANT.

Well, okay, maybe. Whether or not Post readers saw a coded reminder of their own cosmic insignificance, in 1955 they voted Saying Grace their favorite Rockwell cover.

• • •

The Norman Rockwell of American Mirror is a cold fish, clinically anxious and emotionally detached from those closest to him, dependent on psychiatrists and pharmaceutical amphetamines to combat panic attacks. He sounds more asexual than anything else. His third wife lived with another woman before she wed him, and afterward didn’t share his bed. “At last, he had found his feminine ideal,” Solomon writes, “an elderly schoolteacher who was unlikely to make sexual demands on him.”

Yet the golden glow that clings to his images of young boys (and girls) doesn’t strike me as a haze of latent sexual desire. It is a more complex and intense longing: for childhood, for family, for human connection. And it is one that Rockwell himself was acutely aware of.

“Maybe as I grew up and found the world wasn’t the perfectly pleasant place I thought it to be,” Rockwell mused:

I unconsciously decided that, even if it wasn’t an ideal world, it should be and painted only aspects of it—pictures in which there were no drunken slatterns or self-centered mothers, in which, on the contrary, there were only Foxy Grandpas who played football with the kids, and boys fished from logs and got up circuses in the backyard. If there was any sadness in this created world of mine it was a pleasant sadness. If there were problems, they were humorous problems. The people in my pictures aren’t mentally ill or deformed. The situations they get into are commonplace, everyday situations, not the agonizing crises and tangles of everyday life.

In his introduction to Norman Rockwell: 332 Magazine Covers (1979), Christopher Finch writes:

Every image interlocks with half a dozen others. In a sense they are all part of one massive work. Each takes on a greater significance because of those that have preceded it and those that will follow it. . . . We should not judge Rockwell by any individual work, nor even by a selection of his finest paintings, but rather by the cumulative effect of his total output.

Viewed like this, Rockwell’s century-spanning American panorama isn’t nostalgia or kitsch. Nor is it the “social document” that Solomon memorably calls “America before the fall—a world devoid of pollution, drugs, and violent crime.” It’s something richer and stranger: an alternate history of the United States, one as Rockwell wished it had been. Even his autobiography is a kind of alternate history. “His memory,” his son Tom told Solomon in 1999, “was the Norman Rockwell version of his life.” Most of Rockwell’s work is not even illustration in the purest sense of that word—images designed to elucidate an individual text—but invention.

Nearly all of the work he is best known for—the 332 covers he did for the Saturday Evening Post—depicted vivid scenes and characters, executed in photorealist detail, that were sprung from his own imagination. They are scenes and characters from a movie playing in Rockwell’s head, cast with his neighbors in Arlington and Stockbridge, a film that he projected onto canvas for an audience of millions.

Or, perhaps, his works constitute a deck of magically resonant tarot cards, Major and Minor Arcana depicting the distinctly American, numinous world echoed in their titles: “Contentment,” “Springtime,” “A Temporary Setback,” “First Flight,” “The Critic,” “Fleeing Hobo,” “Armchair General,” “Ticket Agent.” Shuffled and reshuffled, they can be arranged in countless patterns, avatars creating a narrative of hopeful yearning that still manages to move us, even as the imaginary world they inhabit remains forever just beyond our reach.

Images from the Library of Congress. 

Comments

Wow, this author makes a living at this sort of character destruction? Must be miserable having to spend one's life tearing down all that is real and meaningful, attempting to appear superior to those which you are most certainly inferior to, and of course it is tres risque knocking down the pillars which hold up the very roof that has protectd you while you cultivate your smug skillset.
Tripe, Mz. Hand, hard-boiled tripe.

It is called projection. I think those that see evil maybe are projecting their own lewd thoughts onto an innocence. Best not leave any small children alone with that person. And there really was an America like the simple life depicted in his paintings.

I hesitate to make blanket statements about what sort of “fast poetry” Claudius publishes; it’s hard to imagine a magazine admitting both Vanessa Place and Mark Levine as having easy-to-locate aesthetic coordinates.

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