Perhaps Rockwell’s greatest moment of popular relevance came in the ’40s, during World War II, when his “Four Freedoms” became icons of pro-American propaganda, and his Rosie the Riveter suddenly gave his life-long difficulty in representing traditional femininity a national purpose in recruiting women to the war industries. Having already been doing covers for the Post for a quarter century, Rockwell was by then an institution—but he was also becoming an icon of the past. Photojournalism was eroding the basis for magazine illustration as a vital profession, and TV would erode the basis of magazines themselves. Victory in World War II would make the United States a global power, undermining the hold that Rockwell’s whimsical provincialism had on the national imagination, though it admittedly had a long afterlife in Eisenhower’s suburban ’50s.
American Mirror only gets truly interesting in its final fourth. Artists often have late-period turnarounds—Titian going quasi-impressionist, Goya lining the walls of his house with nightmare imagery, Matisse breaking free of canvas with his luminous paper cuts. Rockwell had his own, and it took the form of a sudden and public turn toward liberal progressivism. When at last he cut himself free of the declining Post, he had the chance to reinvent himself, though it was too late to shift gears stylistically. His well-known The Problem We All Live With, made in 1964 for the interior of Look—three years after the event it depicted—shows in sympathetic detail the entrance of a young, black schoolgirl into a desegregated school, escorted by National Guards, the brutal epithet “NIGGER” scrawled in the background, a blood-red splash of rotten tomato behind her, as if she is just one step ahead of the mob. In its own way, it is as homiletic as his earlier work, but of a different world (partly because, Rockwell remembered, the Post had editorially mandated that African Americans only be shown in service-industry roles); it reflects news from his titanic near-present, not a transmission from a quasi-mythic past.
Rockwell hardly became a political crusader, but amid the sturm und drang of the ’60s he did at least speak up. In 1962, he became a public “sponsor” of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, his name appearing alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. and Benjamin Spock on its masthead. He did a startling, cinematic piece about the murder of Civil Rights activists during the “Freedom Summer” for Look, and even was made a lifetime member of the NAACP. As Vietnam reached the heights of savagery, he repeatedly telegrammed Lyndon Johnson, whose portrait he had once done, pleading with him to end the war. “Times are changing now, and people are getting angry,” he wrote in 1965. “I’m beginning to get angry too.” No comparably passionate statement appears in the first part of the book, where Rockwell comes across as almost pathologically disengaged. Still, American Mirror doesn’t exactly explain the change, just document it; Rockwell remained an aloof figure, closed into his own quirky world, until the end.
Why return to Normal Rockwell, now, in 2013? That is a difficult question. Solomon wants to reclaim him as a “postmodern” artist, but I don’t think that quite flies. We are separated from his imagery of quaint civic rituals, small-town contretemps, and easy patriotic faith by Vietnam and Watergate and Stonewall, by Afghanistan and Lehman Brothers and WikiLeaks. The rage for “Americana” that Rockwell fed in the ’20s was, Solomon reminds us, a novel phenomenon of the time, an appetite created by a modernizing America looking for a simple and stable past. Similarly, she says, “Rockwellian” as an adjective is an invention of the disillusioned 1970s. In art, we think of this as the period of post-minimalism and performance and the feminist breakthrough. But in politics, Nixon tried to name and speak for a “silent majority”—hostile to the counterculture, pro-business—and the coronation of Rockwell as an unsung American Master was a kind of cultural correlate; his art was populist and unchallenging and, after all, commercial. That touring museum retrospective that the Ramparts article lambasted was, Solomon recounts, the creation of Madison Avenue dealer Bernard Danenberg, who saw a market niche to exploit, and pitched the show to the Brooklyn Museum as a way of attracting large audiences. Rockwell himself declined to show up.
The right-wing activists who dress in tricorne hats at Tea Party rallies are, perhaps, the contemporary audience for a “Rockwellian” myth of America, longing for a homogeneity that never existed. There’s a reason why, when looking to deify Sarah Palin, a conservative fan would figure her as Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter. Will such an audience want to wade through Solomon’s account of Rockwell’s life in its petty, oddball human actuality? Do they really want to hear about Rockwell’s disdain for his hypochondriac mother, about his trip to England to secure a safe abortion for his second wife in pre-Roe U.S., his dependence on pills to control his anxiety, his 1962 admission that, “I was born a white Protestant with some prejudices which I am continuously trying to eradicate”? Likely not, because to learn about the actual Rockwell is to undo the power of the “Rockwellian” spell. As for the rest of us, Solomon’s book gives us the set-up to a punch line we already knew. Rockwell’s art is most interesting when he is least Rockwellian. I can’t say that American Mirror convinces me that his classic images are secretly more complex than we thought. On the contrary: The story of his life makes clear all the complexity that for the most part his art lacks.
American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell by Deborah Solomon. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.