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Review: An earnest look at 'The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell'

Norman Rockwell, the great illustrator, was popular with and beloved by several generations who read the Saturday Evening Post, for which he created 323 covers over a 47-year period. He was ignored, sometimes mocked, by an art world in thrall to abstraction and abstract expressionism when his career was in high gear during the 1930s, '40s and '50s.

A shift began in the 1970s when museums began exhibiting his work en masse and critics began having a change of heart. (Revisionism is the nature of art history.) But closer examination of Rockwell's art also led to scrutiny of his life. So the public learned that his life was sometimes different from the sweet versions of Americana he painted for most of his career.

We learned he had endured great loss and sadness in the death of his second wife, Mary, who sank into depression and alcoholism and died, possibly by suicide, in 1959 at age 51. We had bits and pieces, much of it from Rockwell (1894-1978), that gave us a sense of the man behind the art, but nothing deeper.

American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell by Deborah Solomon brings us the first comprehensive biography, stuffed with factual information that she gracefully weaves around an elegantly written narrative. She's especially good at closing chapters with "kickers," the word in journalism for witty and pithy endings.

She begins with Rockwell's maternal grandparents, who were British emigres. His grandfather was a failed artist and alcoholic and, when his wife died at 57, his five surviving children scattered as soon as they could, including Rockwell's mother, Nancy, a pretty woman who at 25 married Jarvis Waring Rockwell, who came from an affluent family. They had two sons, Jarvis Jr. and Norman. Rockwell said in later life that his brother "was the real boy," strong both in academics and athletics while Rockwell was good at neither. Physically he was gawky and he was probably dyslexic. He drew constantly. He seems to have felt his parents neglected him emotionally, that his mother was an obsessive hypochondriac who was doted on by his father. We learn that Rockwell, too, was a hypochondriac and remote father.

When he was a junior, Rockwell dropped out of high school and enrolled in art school. Solomon writes, "He was seventeen years old and his boyhood was over. But it would live on in his paintings. Boyhood would be one of the great themes of his art and it would give him the chance to rewrite the whole story."

Commercial success came early; he was 19 when he became art editor for the Boy Scouts magazine Boys' Life, beginning a professional relationship with the organization that would continue throughout his life.

In 1916, when he was 21, the most important partnership of his career began with his first cover for the Saturday Evening Post. He would be a star and stalwart contributor to the weekly magazine until 1963, when he was 69 and declined further commissions from the Post.

Times were changing by the 1960s for weeklies such as the Post. Circulation was still strong but advertising dollars, the lifeblood of publications such as newspapers and magazines, were now being shared with television. The conservative Post was considered old-fashioned and behind the times, and illustration was undermined by photography.

His departure was demoralizing and frightening for him; the magazine has been his bread and butter, the source of his fame, for decades. The editors' treatment of him was shabby. "(They) did not bother to announce or even acknowledge his departure" even though "he was . . . the most enduring creation of the Saturday Evening Post," Solomon writes.

She writes that the change became "liberating" because "starting January 1964, when his first illustration appeared in Look magazine, Rockwell began treating his work as a vehicle for social causes."

The painter had had to tamp down his liberalism at the Post, where he once was told to paint out a black man in a group illustration because its policy was only to show blacks in a service industry. Look allowed him to create politically charged works. His most famous in that genre, and one of the most famous in his entire collection, is The Problem We All Live With, in which a little girl, who is black, is escorted to school by U.S. marshals during the early days of desegregation. It has all the hallmarks of a Rockwell painting, and its edge comes from the narrative of a smashed tomato and racial epithet on a wall rather than a departure from technique. Look published it in 1964, and it stirred up a minor furor among many fans of Rockwell who felt betrayed.

By this time he had married for a third time. His first wife left him for another man, his second one had died, and in 1961 Rockwell married Molly Punderson, a 68-year-old teacher. It was, Solomon writes, the first time he seemed truly happy and content in a relationship. Solomon implies that it was possibly a mariage blanc, one that isn't consummated. It is one of many speculations about Rockwell's sexuality that have fueled some controversy.

Solomon is empirical in setting out her belief that the artist was a repressed homosexual. She points out correctly that he preferred the company of men. She also states unequivocally that there is no evidence to suggest that he ever had a physical relationship with a man.

But I think she goes too far in some of her interpolations and critiques of his work. And, despite her exhaustive research, she sometimes speculates when solid evidence isn't available.

For example, in a chapter about the early years of marriage to his second wife, Mary Barstow, Solomon writes, "Within the first year of their marriage, Mary began to feel excluded from her husband's company." Unlike many other conclusions to which she comes, Solomon doesn't anchor it with a quote from a letter or even a reminiscence from someone who knew Mary. Nor could I find any reference in the footnotes. So, true though that statement probably is, it's still conjecture on her part.

Worse, I think, are her analyses of some of his paintings based on his repressed sexual desires. Even worse is the suggestion of "pedophilic impulses." She cites his long relationships with young male models, including one example using Before the Shot (1958), in which a young boy stands on a chair looking at the doctor's diploma while the man prepares a shot. The boy's pants are partly down, exposing a bit of buttocks. Solomon writes that the young model, Eddie Locke, recounted in an interview with the author that Rockwell came by his house unannounced one evening with the near-finished painting. " 'He asked for the pants,' Locke recalled years later. 'This is what my parents told me. He asked for the pants to see if he had gotten the color right. They're kind of grey-green.' "

That's a pretty slim thread on which to hang the idea of pedophilic tendencies.

And looking for homoerotic impulses in a reading of The Runaway (1958), in which a young boy and policeman sit on stools in a diner (you can probably figure out the narrative, knowing Rockwell), is a huge stretch.

Solomon delivers a moving and sensitive reading of The Blank Canvas (1938). It features Rockwell's typical gentle humor, this time self-deprecating, as it's a self portrait about his search for a subject. The artist scratches his head (we don't see his face) as he stares at the canvas. A horseshoe surrounding a small kachina doll is tacked to it along with a note labeled "due date."

Solomon makes a new connection. Rockwell had taken Mary and their three boys to England, ostensibly for a vacation but, according to Solomon, so that Mary could have a legal abortion. (I couldn't find any references to this conclusion in the footnotes.) But if it is true, there are references to the abortion in the details of the painting, completed after their return. (The horseshoe, she points out, is womblike.) Maybe she's correct in seeing it as a statement of grief that he was unable to verbalize or share.

Despite my questions about her approach on occasion, I find Solomon's book to be an illuminating portrait. In the culture of self-examination that has evolved since Rockwell's heyday and our embrace of frank discussions of sexuality, we expect a deep probe such as this that would have shocked and appalled readers 70 years ago. No one can live an uncomplicated life. And Rockwell certainly didn't. For most of his life and in most of his relationships, he was remote, sometimes cruelly, and self-absorbed.

In discussing a perceived fallacy in most people's conception of Rockwell's paintings, Solomon writes, "Rockwell was not, in any sense, a painter of families. To the contrary, his work demonstrates how easy it is to opt out of the model nuclear family and find pleasure in alternate attachments," she writes.

Okay, that's a credible way of looking at it. But maybe we don't need to work so hard at decoding Rockwell's heart. More interesting to me is his belief in the constant possibility of unexpected and incongruous human connections that make us know ourselves better.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lbennett@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8293.

American Mirror:

The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell

By Deborah Solomon

Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

493 pages, $22

Review: An earnest look at 'The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell' 12/18/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 18, 2013 6:38pm]

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