STOCKBRIDGE -- Norman Rockwell called himself an illustrator; today we call him an artist.
Art critic Deborah Solomon explores that cultural leap and psychologically dissects the gifted, but neurotic painter who bridged it in her new biography "American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell."
"He was a sympathetic and deeply tortured man," she said in a book-signing appearance last weekend at the Norman Rockwell Museum.
A New York Times interviewer, art critic and the biographer of modern artists Jackson Pollock and Joseph Cornell, Solomon said she took on the challenge of profiling a figure she had long viewed as a "cornball symbol ... of bourgeois values" because she wanted to dig into the flip side of mid-20th century modernism -- the art she grew up on.
In doing so, she not only untangles the way art movements and criticism grow out of and in reaction to one another, but also dissects the psyche of an American folk icon who was not what he appeared to be.
Rockwell, with his tweeds, bowties and ever-present pipe, styled himself an ordinary middle American, much like the characters he created for the Saturday Evening Post, Boy Scout calendars and innumerable advertisements. In actuality, he was a workaholic, a distant husband and father, and deeply insecure -- so much so, that he sought psychiatric treatment at the Austen Riggs Center here.
The split between the public and the private Norman Rockwell is no surprise to those familiar with his life, but Solomon, in a 15-year undertaking, gets beneath the surface to the reasons why he was the way he was. Using letters, diaries, news stories and the testimony of those who knew him, she creates a vivid portrait of a man who lived through his art, struggled with insecurities, and, she believes, with latent homosexuality, to find human connections in the idealized social bonds of small-town life -- bonds that resonated with his millions of viewers. He pictured Americans as they wanted to see themselves, never mind the greediness pretense, anger and despair most knew all too well.
Rockwell knew that downside too. Raised by a neurotic mother, a hypochondriac who seldom gave him attention, and by a father who catered to her whims, he grew up middle class in New York and its suburbs -- a skinny, awkward youth indifferent to academics, poor at athletics, and bullied by other boys.
But he could draw. And by good fortune, his adolescence coincided with the "golden age" of magazine illustration, a field that could offer promise to a talented youth.
By age 22, in 1916, he had his first cover on the Saturday Evening Post, America's biggest circulation magazine. The Post covers for which he became famous were actually stand-alone visual narratives, not illustrations of stories inside, as is the case today. That made Rockwell responsible for his own ideas.
He built those ideas mostly around boys and the things they did. Girls seldom figured in his illustrations, Solomon writes, and when they did, he made them tomboys in skirts.
In his own life, she continues, despite being thrice married, Rockwell spent much of his time with other men, rugged masculine types very different from himself. Although she doubts these relationships were sexual, she suggests he had a homosexual inclination, nonetheless.
"He was afraid of all physical intimacy," she writes, "male or female, but decidedly more comfortable in homosocial male groups than in any standard domestic role, be it that of husband, father or man of the house."
It would have been one more cause for anxiety on top on his multiple insecurities over his worth as an artist, his obsessive work habits and need for deadline pressure.
"He lived with an enormous sense of dissatisfaction and that propelled him forward," Solomon said in her talk last week.
Had she confined herself to Rockwell's troubled personality and serial relationships, she would have had more than enough to satisfy most celebrity-tell-all biographers. He dropped models and friends in whom he lost interest, bewildering those he left behind. He had little time for his sons, and moved quickly into new marriages once the previous ones ended. His first wife divorced him, the second died, the third outlived him.
But Solomon is a respected and engaging writer; a serious art critic who did her research, analyzed Rockwell artistic importance within its cultural context and ended up respecting him as "an American Realist."
She refers repeatedly to the intensity of his "gaze" into the ways people communicate, his technical skills and the masterful editing of his pictorial compositions.
"To me, his work is incredibly moving and deep," she said.
Much of the criticism leveled against him, she claims, was actually collateral damage from liberal attacks against the Post itself -- a backward-looking, family-values publication with a deep conservative bias. For example, its editors would not allow black people to be portrayed in other than service positions. Significantly, when he left the Post to work for Look magazine in 1962, Rockwell became a champion of civil rights, giving the movement some of its most vivid images, among them "The Problem We All Live With," based on a real-life incident. In it, a young black girl, Ruby Bridges, is escorted by federal marshals past a wall of hate graffiti to attend a newly desegregated school in New Orleans.
Rockwell, who always took pride in being an illustrator, was not above challenging himself as an artist, particularly as Abstract Expressionism came to dominate the U.S. art scene in the 1940s and ‘50s through its flag bearers Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Rockwell didn't object to Modernism and even took time off in 1932 to paint in Paris, Solomon writes. But he found he couldn't work without the structure of story-telling and deadline pressure -- habits disdained by modern painters who valued spontaneity and emotional expression.
So tight was Modernism's grip on the New York art establishment that even an American Realist like Edward Hopper, renown today, found himself outside looking in.
For Rockwell, with his precision painting and mass-market appeal, the lampooning was even worse, though Solomon said most artists, including de Kooning, admired his work.
But art movements come and go in reaction to one another. First Pop Art, then Post Modernism nudged Abstract Expressionism into history, allowing new respect for realists like Rockwell.
Surprisingly, as galleries and museums took notice of him -- he had a 60-year retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum in 1972 -- Rockwell seemed indifferent, shunning royalties, reluctant to lend paintings, dodging the trappings of celebrity.
As the 1970s progressed, he became increasing forgetful and confused, though still able to paint, mostly portraits of entertainers and politicians. Finally, suffering from emphysema, he died at his Stockbridge home Nov. 8, 1978 at the age of 84.
"Norman Rockwell had never been enamored of farewells, especially the flowery sort," Solomon writes. "Friends who had known him in his earlier years in New Rochelle or in Arlington, Vermont, had puzzled over the abruptness with which he moved away and his failure to come back and visit. Unlike the figures in his work, who have all the time in the world to linger, he was a man given to sudden flight. He died much as he lived -- essentially alone, with no time for love, and no time to say goodbye."