Artist Norman Rockwell paints in his studio in 1960. His family is claiming a new biography written by Deborah Solomon is rife with over-the-top
Artist Norman Rockwell paints in his studio in 1960. His family is claiming a new biography written by Deborah Solomon is rife with over-the-top interpretations and inaccuracies. (Eagle file photo)

PITTSFIELD -- A new biography of Norman Rockwell is drawing sharp criticism from members of the late artist's family, who contend the book is riddled with inaccuracies and over-the-top interpretations.

And while initially the book received generally favorable reviews, family members believe that is changing.

"I think the message is getting across," said Rockwell's granddaughter, Abigail Rockwell. "The reviews that agree with us seem to be piling up."

Rockwell and her father, Thomas Rockwell, both of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., have expressed shock and outrage over many details of "American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell," which was released in November.

The Rockwells also expressed frustration that the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, where the artist lived from 1953 until his death in 1978, held a book launch event for author Deborah Solomon's book and has "endorsed" the work.

Solomon also has published biographies of artists Jackson Pollock and Joseph Cornell, and has written for The New York Times and other publications. But in the Rockwell book, her attempts to interpret the artist's insecurities and sexual tendencies, based on his famous works and public or private statements, sparked a pointed reaction from the family.

In a statement sent to the media, the Rockwells state in part: "Referring to Nabokov's novel, ‘Lolita,' Solomon writes, ‘In a way Rockwell was Humbert Humbert's discreet and careful twin brother, roused by the beauty of children but (thankfully) more repressed.' Many of the reviewers have ignored the claim of pedophilia, perhaps because the suggestion of it blows the credibility of the book out of the water."

The Rockwells add: "She [Solomon] supports this unfounded claim with another phantom theory, that Rockwell was a closeted homosexual. To link pedophilia and homosexuality in this way is offensive and clearly homophobic. We have found at least 68 of these sexual references throughout the book."

Factual errors can also be found throughout the 441-page book, the Rockwells contend. "There are also many other factual errors and omissions -- we have found at least 96," they said in their release.

Solomon could not be reached for comment for this article.

"To me, it is not anger at all. It is more heartbreaking," Abigail Rockwell said Monday. "This has been a harrowing experience."

Thomas Rockwell said the past few weeks has found them "painstakingly going through" the book to document errors and what they see as overreaching interpretation on Solomon's part, especially about possible sexual tendencies.

Abigail also said the family trusted Solomon and provided access to biographical materials about Rockwell for her book. "Deborah befriended me, but I guess we were naive," she said.

"For a long time, it seemed the media didn't question this," Abigail said, but more recent reviews have made the author herself at least part of their focus.

In The New York Times, Garrison Keillor, the host of the national radio program "A Prairie Home Companion," describes the many aspects of Rockwell's life that he finds a compelling American story. "Solomon pays honest respect to Rockwell for his clear sense of calling and his dedication through periods of self-doubt, exhaustion, depression and marital tumult, and she offers the word masterpiece to numerous pictures ... ," Keillor writes.

But he adds: "[Solomon] does seem awfully eager to find homoeroticism -- poor Rockwell cannot go on a fishing trip with other men without his biographer finding sexual overtones. In ‘The Runaway,' a painting of a burly cop and a little boy on adjacent cafe stools, the cop leans toward the boy ‘as if to emphasize the ... tenderness that can form between a grown man and a little boy ... the hint of homoeroticism' -- oh, come on."

In The Oregonian newsaper, Steve Duin goes further, stating in part: "There are a number of things to like about ‘American Mirror,' Deborah Solomon's new biography of Norman Rockwell. Deborah Solomon is not among them.

"Her contempt for the illustrator, her campaign to mirror ‘the scathing condescension directed at Rockwell during his lifetime,' is extraordinary. She is seemingly obsessed with the ‘complicated question' of whether Rockwell was homosexual, and embittered by her inability to catch him in the act," Duin writes.

The Rockwells also are unhappy with the Rockwell Museum and museum Director Laurie Norton Moffatt's praise for the biography when it was released.

Moffatt could not be reached for comment on the family's statement. However, the museum released a statement concerning the controversy:

"Norman Rockwell Museum is a center for scholarship and academic freedom about Norman Rockwell and American Illustration studies open to all ... The Solomon biography is one of a long line of books about Norman Rockwell, and we anticipate that the art and life of this important American artist will continue to be of great interest and importance."

To reach Jim Therrien:
jtherrien@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6247.
On Twitter: @BE_therrien Rockwell timeline

n Born in 1894 in New York City

n Painted 323 Saturday Evening Post covers, the first in 1916

n Produced numerous iconic scenes of American life, such as his Four Freedoms series

n Lived in Arlington, Vt., 1938-53.

n Moved to Stockbridge in 1953

n Died at his Stockbridge home in 1978