The cover of the Saturday Evening Post published October 14, 1916. Illustration by Norman Rockwell.
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I’m tickled to be cited in my friend Deborah Solomon’s new biography, “American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell,” as “the first hip young art critic” to have had a kind word for the great artist-illustrator. At the start of her book, Solomon summarizes the snarling attitudes of art sophisticates (including her own art-history professors) throughout her subject’s six-decade career: “Rockwell? Oh God! He was viewed as a cornball and a square, a convenient symbol of the bourgeois values modernism sought to topple.” Reviewing a Rockwell retrospective in 1973, in the Times, I argued for magnanimity, given the secure success of modern art. Writing that “the gap between Rockwell and modernism is just a gap, not a battle line,” I noted the finally irresistible fact that he was fantastically good, as well as hugely consequential, in what he did.
Someone then was bound to break the highbrow ice around Rockwell. Hysterical hostility to popular culture—enshrined in Clement Greenberg’s only too influential 1939 essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” which practically equates commercial art with Fascism—had dwindled. I was of the right generation, imprinted by the leveling of the elite and the demotic in Pop art, and it was an opportune stylistic moment, when photo-realist painting was, briefly, all the rage. More generally, the art world was already headed toward its present state, in which the gap between fine and commercial art reduces to a porous dotted line between stuff that is made to be marketed and stuff that is made to order.
My tipping point regarding Rockwell had come in conversation with Willem de Kooning. Our greatest modern painter quite adored Rockwell—as he did most things about the United States since arriving here, as a twenty-two-year-old Dutch stowaway, in 1926. (He reminisced, “My Communist friends in Greenwich Village said America is a lousy country. I told them they were nuts.”) De Kooning emboldened me to write something that was in the air to be written.
Enough about me. (Oh, there’d be more, but I figure nowhere else in the book at hand.) Solomon, the crack journalist and a biographer of Joseph Cornell and Jackson Pollock, emphasizes the tortured psychology of a sickly New York boy who elevated magazine illustration to giddy heights of eloquence and charm. Rockwell was no mere illustrator, though—modest to a fault, he staked no larger claim. He invented as well as limned his stories and, in the process, created a grand, rolling fiction of Americanness. The pictures dramatize comic or poignant episodes of harmless strain in the day-to-day of democracy: a starchy old woman and a boy eyed with bemused tolerance by hard-case guys as they say grace over their meal in a seedy diner; a grapevine sequence of folks passing along a morsel of gossip, which returns to shock its originator; seen from behind, a soldier returning from war whose feelings can only be imagined as he is greeted with explosive joy by variegated residents of his tenement home; a pubescent girl inspecting herself anxiously in a mirror, with a movie magazine at her side.
Rockwell’s populous American mythos is ever more to be valued as the shared beliefs that used to gird it devolve into hellish divisions. His lodestar was Charles Dickens, naturalized to New England towns and to suburbs anywhere. And he drew and painted angelically, with subtle technical ingenuity, involving layered colors, that is still underappreciated. I took instruction on this point from de Kooning, who opened a book to a reproduction, handed me a magnifying glass, and made me peruse Rockwell’s minuscule but almost fiercely animated painterly touch. “See?” said de Kooning. “Abstract Expressionism!” Solomon reports that de Kooning remarked of Rockwell’s astonishing imitation of a Pollock drip painting, being viewed by a fancy gent in “The Connoisseur” (1962), “Square inch by square inch, it’s better than Jackson!” I agree, though the pastiche is unpersuasive overall. Rockwell had labored mightily to get the Pollock look right, not as a parody but in homage. He said, “If I were young, I would paint that way myself.” Never anti-modernist, he was always in awe of Picasso.
But—or really and—Rockwell was an obsessive-compulsive, anxiety-riddled, miserable hypochondriac, as at least two of his three schoolteacher wives and his three emotionally scanted children could testify. He didn’t behave badly so much as he hardly behaved at all, outside his studios in, successively, New Rochelle, New York; Arlington, Vermont; and Stockbridge, Massachusetts. His psychoanalyst—no less than the renowned developmental psychologist and pioneer of psychobiography Erik Erikson—is said to have remarked that Rockwell funneled all his happiness into his art. Solomon plumbs a suspicion (almost de rigueur in biography-writing lately) of homosexuality. Her verdict: temperamentally so, but moot in one who was puritanically shy of intimacy. I can almost imagine Edmund Wilson, whose “The Wound and the Bow” (1941) theorized a link between psychic trauma and creative genius, adding a chapter for Rockwell. (Wilson’s leadoff essay is about Dickens.) Certainly, there can be few more extreme endorsements of W.B. Yeats’s chilly dictum, “The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life, or of the work.”
Solomon’s focus on Rockwell the person shines a narrow but penetrating light through the usual gas cloud, in writing about him, of generalizing about American culture. Social and political forces and events register as specific impacts on the artist, who was sensitive to shifts in national hopes and fears—from common cause with the Boy Scouts through F.D.R.’s “Four Freedoms” and Rosie the Riveter to the drama of the civil-rights movement. He mirrored history—in one sense of a versatile metaphor that Solomon employs often, for an artist so invested in imagery that, a Dracula in reverse, he was most fully real in his reflections. Rockwell’s pictures are literal-minded and sentimental, sure, but they constitute as accurate a graph as we have of what being American—a fictive condition, always—could feel like in the twentieth century. Meanwhile, he spread delight among the people. Last I checked, there wasn’t a law against that.
[ Originally published in The New Yorker, November 5, 2013 ]