American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell
By Deborah Solomon
We all know that you can’t please all the people all the time. But what if you can’t please anybody? Then you have to ask yourself: why? Were you dead wrong? Did you miss what others saw? Or, did you say something about a person many hold iconic so that anything construed as negative would earn you nothing but acrimony?
The iconic figure here is Norman Rockwell. We love Norman Rockwell’s work. We love leafing through complications of his illustrations and living for a moment in his mythical America. We love the idea of a world as depicted by him.
However, we also wonder what’s behind the picture? What of the painter’s life found its way onto the canvas? Yes, we can appreciate an illustration simply for the scene it portrays and the emotion it elicits from us. We’re also curious, though, about the artist and his life. And we can appreciate an artist or a writer even if we might not like every aspect of his life. And in our experience, most artists of any calibre bring plenty of their own life to a picture, a book, a performance.
So, our conclusion here is that some people hold their icons in such reverence that nary an unorthodox thought can be attributed to them.
And with that, here is our most hated review, garnering the dislike of nearly ninety percent of those caring to comment on it. See how you feel about it.
Solomon’s biography is first-rate in many ways. She writes in a breezy, approachable style devoid of art world jargon. She thoroughly covers Rockwell’s life, including his many quirks (among them his cleanliness compulsion and hypochondria), his routines (his steadfastness in his studio and his plain, unyielding dietary habits), his marriages (troubled and difficult until his last), his friendships (almost all with men and particularly with Erik Erikson), and his working style (props, models, and meticulous detail).
Along the way, Solomon furnishes insightful interpretations of Rockwell’s pictures and how he created them that add to your appreciation of his best paintings. She also explores earlier illustrators and artists who influenced him.
And, while some have found this disconcerting, perhaps even foolish, Solomon speculates on his sexuality and homoeroticism in his art and acquaintances. Readers can draw their own conclusions as to his sexuality and the influence it may have had on his work (which is the reason to ponder the question, less from prurience and idle curiosity and more for greater understanding and appreciation).
Solomon often refers to Rockwell’s own struggle with illustration vs. art. Did he draw illustrations or did he create art? Should he stop illustrating and venture into art? Though many, probably Solomon too, would say he was too close to his work, maybe too intimidated by the culture keepers, to see that he in fact did create a body of art admired by the common man, the subject of his paintings, and artists (such as de Kooning) alike. That he worked best, and really only, on assignment and in the face of a looming deadline diminish his accomplishments not an iota.
Solomon calls the world he created Rockwell Land. It’s an imagined America, especially true of his pre-1960s pictures. People can debate whether Norman Rockwell was an artist; however, there’s little doubt that his pictures and the stories they tell (for above all, he was a storyteller on canvas) influenced, still influence, and will continue to influence the American psyche. He may not have portrayed America as it was and is but he certainly did portray what Americans wished their nation to be; that is a good and bounteous place.
Among the best parts of Solomon’s biography are her interpretations and analyses of many of Rockwell’s well known pictures. She keeps these as breezy and approachable as the rest of her writing to give viewers a greater appreciation of Rockwell and to help us understand better what draws us into his pictures. An apt example might be her take on “Girl at Mirror” (1954), as it also obliquely references homoeroticism. What follows is the first paragraph leading into several on the painting:
“’Girl at Mirror’ remains riveting as an image of ambivalent womanhood, with its sensitively rendered female figure. Actually, seen from the back, she could be a boy; her left shoulder bulges a bit, and her adjacent trapezius muscle … is also beefy. But glimpsed from the front–in her mirrored reflection–she is slim and unmistakably girlish. In other words, there are two girls in the painting. There’s the real girl, perhaps a tomboy, who has sneaked upstairs to the attic with her Movie Spotlight fanzine (do her parents even allow her to read it?), propped a mirror against a chair, and put on her mother’s lipstick. Then there’s the other girl, the reflected mirror image that she confronts across a dark divide.” (p. 292, hardcover)
Another delight, you’ll rediscover some magazine illustrators of an earlier time, all but forgotten now but famous in their day, some friends of Rockwell, and some, such as Howard Pyle, an influence on his work. If you have an interest at all in illustration, you’ll enjoy looking up the likes of J. C. Leyendecker (Arrow Collar Man), Coles Phillips (the Fade-Away Girl), and others.
All in all, an insightful and enjoyable experience, for those who admire Rockwell, as well as those who wonder why all the fuss about a guy who, after all, was just a magazine illustrator. The fuss, you’ll learn, is that he was so much more. More even than an artist. And more even than he knew himself. w/c