The Secrets of Norman Rockwell

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 6 2013 10:05 AM

Mi Gosh and By-heck

Deborah Solomon’s life of Norman Rockwell, whose art looked back to an America that never was.

Norman Rockwell

Illustration by Greg Ruth

In 1972, Ramparts, the San Francisco journal that had been one of the key outlets for the 1960s New Left, published a barbed little takedown of Norman Rockwell. Titled “Capitalist Realism,” the item was occasioned by a touring career retrospective of Rockwell’s work:

His later work contains attempts at a greater “relevance”: but his is one world where nothing has really changed. Rockwell is Rockwell, possibly the only one who sincerely believes in his vision of things. This retrospective is vintage nostalgia. It holds up a mirror to America: not the America that was, or the America that should have been, but the sugar coating that sweetened the bitter pill.

Ramparts’ venomous assessment is well-turned but unremarkable—Norman Rockwell was, after all, a representative of the “culture” against which the “counterculture” pitted itself. The funny thing is that five years earlier, the venerated American illustrator had assented to do a cover for the outspokenly lefty magazine, offering a double portrait of the British philosopher Bertrand Russell for the May 1967 issue (which also contained Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam.”) Evidently, by this time, the Rockwell legend was so overpowering that it was impossible to see through, even by those who might have had a reason to.

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The Ramparts review uses the metaphor of the mirror, and American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell happens to be the title of Deborah Solomon’s robust new biography. Like the author of “Capitalist Realism,” Solomon is aware that Rockwell didn’t “mirror” American life in any true way; his work was, if anything, a kind of funhouse mirror in reverse, turning a world that was really full of strange bumps and twists into something eerily becalmed and normal-looking. “Rockwell Land is its own universe, freestanding and totally distinct,” Solomon admits at the outset. We think of his work as of the past now, but even in its own time it was out-of-time: Already in 1936, his editor at the Republican, anti-New Deal Saturday Evening Post was fuming to Rockwell that the subject of his illustration The Ticket Agent, a glum, bony man trapped behind the cage of a window at a small-town train station, came off as too provincial: “We feel it would be more typical of millions of our citizens if he worked in a town of between ten and fifty thousand inhabitants and not such ‘Mi gosh’ and ‘by-heck’ surroundings.”

Solomon is a veteran of the artist biography genre, with books on Joseph Cornell and Jackson Pollock under her belt, and American Mirror is a book of dazzling and accomplished detail about an accomplished but thoroughly undazzling life. The book spans from Rockwell’s prehistory—his artist grandfather’s struggles in mid-1800s New York—to his early attempts to define himself creatively in New York in the 1910s, through his long allegiance to such quaint bergs as New Rochelle, N.Y., Arlington, Vt., and, finally, Stockbridge, Mass., where he died a peaceful death in 1978, a certified national treasure at 84. For most of its 400-plus pages, American Mirror tells the story of a neurasthenic illustrator who was almost willfully uninteresting.

American Mirror

What drama there is comes not from the incidents of Rockwell’s life but from how, in Solomon’s telling, everything in his art actually represents its opposite. Rockwell created the imagery of the Boy Scouts—his most lucrative and long-lasting gig was for the annual Boy Scout calendar—but he was himself not particularly outdoorsy, a neat freak who couldn’t bear to get dirty. He created memorable images of piety (Saying Grace, 1951), but his clan was uninterested in religion; captured scenes of scampy rebellion (The Shiner, 1954) but was rule-bound and order-obsessed; and, most damningly, painted odes to family togetherness (The Homecoming, 1948) but was so affectionless that his own family despaired of ever knowing him. His first bride, Irene O’Connor, divorced him in 1930 on grounds of “mental cruelty;” his second wife, Mary Barstow, was driven to alcoholism and finally the mental hospital by his remove. Only his third wife, Molly Punderson, whom he met when he was 65 and she 64, seems to have been a fit, and they slept in separate beds. “At last he had found his feminine ideal,” Solomon writes: “an elderly schoolteacher who was unlikely to make sexual demands on him.” 

American Mirror’s most controversial point will likely be Solomon’s conclusion that part of the sexless character of Rockwell’s oeuvre can be traced to his own repression, specifically the fact that he was attracted to men but unable to express it. While living in New Rochelle, Rockwell forged an extremely intimate relationship with the Leyendecker brothers, famous illustrators who created the proto-metrosexual “Arrow Collar Man,” and were gay. Seeking therapy in the late ’50s, Rockwell apparently confessed to having “overly intense relationships” with men, though he was so reserved, even in his private correspondence, that it is hard to know what he meant by this.  Piecing together the details of a two-week-long long fishing trip he took to Canada in 1934 with his handsome model and studio assistant, Fred Hildebrandt, Solomon comes to a suggestive dead end:

The trip raises a complicated question: Was Rockwell homosexual? It depends on what you mean by the word. He demonstrated an intense need for emotional and physical closeness with men. From the viewpoint of twenty-first-century gender studies, a man who yearns for the company of men is considered homosexual, whether or not he has sex with other men. In Rockwell’s case, there is nothing to suggest that he had sex with men. The distinction between secret desires and frank sexual acts, though perhaps not crucial to theorists today, was certainly crucial to Rockwell.

Whatever the case on this score, Rockwell’s detachment was not confined to his personal affairs. While his public persona was all self-deprecating humor and his illustrations usually had a jokey vibe to them, he could be extraordinarily, robotically cold. In the late ’30s, he moved to Arlington, whose residents became part of his folksy New England cosmology. Yet when he moved abruptly away more than a decade later, in 1953, to pursue psychotherapy at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, it was as if a switch had been turned off: “If someone had been a very close friend, when Norman moved … it was as if they never existed,” an associate remembered. “Everyone complained that he never kept in touch. People said, ‘We were his best friend, and now we don’t hear from him.’ ”

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