A portrait of Norman Rockwell


The following piece by The Eagle's Charles Bonenti won a 2009 New England Newspaper & Press Association award for history reporting.

Norman Rockwell the man was as much his own creation as the mid-20th-century America he immortalized in pictures.

To fans, he was the easy-going neighbor, the modest, small-town dad with his pipe, sport coat, stay-at-home wife and clean-cut kids.

But Rockwell, who died in 1978, was a complex, conflicted individual, a workaholic said to have put his art above all else. He was extremely sensitive to public opinion and craved the approval of his many fans.

Married three times, he was a caring but distant husband and father who spent years in therapy dealing with loneliness and depression.

Rockwell painted his happiness; he didn't live it, said Erik Erikson -- his late psychiatrist at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge -- in a 2001 Rockwell biography by Laura Claridge.

It was an assessment that Rockwell's oldest son, Jarvis, seconded in a recent interview with The Eagle, saying: "That was his life. He worked everything out in his painting."

Yet through his art, which is being celebrated this year with the 40th anniversary of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Rockwell touched the hearts of millions. The characters in his illustrations represented what Americans saw as their best selves -- close-knit, honest, optimistic, hardworking.

It was "an Arcadian vision in which harmony prevails between all sorts of people, particularly the young and the old," said New York Times Magazine writer Deborah Solomon, who is working on a Rockwell biography she expects to publish next year. "His longing for community spoke to America's sense of itself, particularly during the war years, when a sense of national unity still existed and the divisive claims of multiculturalism had not yet been voiced."

Steve Heller, former art director at The New York Times and a lecturer at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, was more pragmatic.

"Every artist working at that time had to have a selling point," he said. "Charles Dana Gibson had his semi-racy women; Al Held had his flappers. Rockwell had folksy America. It was his schtick. It didn't mean he believed America was like that. It didn't even mean he wanted America to be like that. What it meant was that The Saturday Evening Post appealed to those who idealized America in that way, and Rockwell was brilliant at making their fantasies concrete."

A gifted observer of everyday life, Rockwell recorded in sketchbooks the passing moments, gestures and stories that struck him, then sought ordinary-looking people -- family, friends and neighbors, rather than professional models -- to act out these scenarios. That approach, plus his eye for detail and drama and his extraordinary drafting skills, gave his pictures credibility.

To gauge the effectiveness of his portrayals, he scrupulously read and responded to fan letters, according to retired Rockwell Museum archivist and curator Linda Pero.

"He needed the public reaction. It was addictive to him," she said.

After Rockwell's death, Pero said researchers found 30 boxes of mail stored in his studio, "evidence of how important it was to him."

Rockwell might have cultivated his down-to-earth image in order to project a lifestyle consistent with his pictures. But his real life was no Tom Sawyer story.

Born Feb. 3, 1894, on Manhattan's upper West Side, he grew up in suburban Mamaroneck as a gawky, nearsighted beanpole in the shadow of an athletic older brother, dodging bullies and ingratiating himself to schoolmates with his ability to draw.

It was a skill he practiced with his father, a textile company clerk who copied magazine illustrations as a hobby.

Rockwell was an indifferent high school student, but he eagerly studied art. He enrolled part time in 1908 at the Chase School of Art and then the Art Students League in Manhattan, financing his courses with his parents' support and odd jobs. By 1910, he had dropped out of high school to pursue art full time.

The growth in mass magazine publishing made art illustration a promising and lucrative field to youngsters such as Rockwell, who idolized the imagery of established 19th-century artists such as Howard Pyle, Winslow Homer and John La Farge.

At age 18, he had his first paid commission, illustrating a series of stories for a 1912 question-and-answer book for children.

The next year, he landed a job as art editor at Boys' Life, a magazine for which he'd been freelancing. That and commissions for other youth-oriented publications gave him the courage in 1916 to approach The Saturday Evening Post, which immediately took him on. That cemented a 47-year relationship that made him the most famous illustrator in America.

Yet in 1917, Rockwell was voicing doubts about his career choice. He complained in an interview that he "hated" illustration because it "cramped" his vision, but he wasn't "big enough" to give it up and try something else.

It was an ambivalence he would voice throughout his life.

He'd say he wanted to experiment with modern art for self-expression, biographer Claridge wrote in "Norman Rockwell: A Life," in 2001. Yet he always held back, "so frozen was he in his own fear of leaving what he knew he could do and be loved for."

"He was an anxious, lonely, self-doubting man -- the classic traits of an artistic personality" observed Solomon, the other Rockwell biographer. "He was seldom comfortable inside his own skin and found a sense of belonging only through his art."

Those were troubling traits to carry into the roles of husband and father.

Rockwell's first wife, Irene O'Connor, left him for another man in 1929 after 14 years of parties and high living in suburban New Rochelle, N.Y.

That same year, Rockwell met and married Mary Barstow, a California schoolteacher 14 years his junior. They had three sons and in 1939 moved from New Rochelle to Arlington, Vt. There Rockwell said he found authentic rural characters to inspire his art.

It was in Arlington that he did some of his most memorable illustrations, including "The Four Freedoms," "Breaking Home Ties" and "Saying Grace."

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But while Rockwell thrived, his family struggled to adjust.

"The boys were very upset about being moved from the city," said Pero, the retired Rockwell curator. "There were hardly any kids around, and they had nothing in common with those that were. It was pretty hard."

"I felt so compromised by the fact of being my father's son," Jarvis Rockwell said of living in the shadow of a celebrity.

To Jarvis, now 77 and living in North Adams, Arlington was "in the middle of nowhere," and he would find himself involved in his father's artwork -- often as a model -- whether he wanted to be or not.

While his father helped him financially to launch his art career, he said paternal advice was neither welcomed nor needed.

"What I wanted was love," he said.

Mary Rockwell, who kept house, raised the boys and helped her husband in the studio, grew depressed as the years passed and began to drink heavily.

It would be easy to blame her problems on her marriage, Pero said, but the roots might have been within her own personality.

Money went out as fast as it came in.

At the height of his fame, Pero said, Rockwell was making $5,000 a portrait, enough to easily buy two, even three, cars in the 1950s. And he was doing advertisements, calendars and greeting cards as well. But he was supporting his mother and other members of his extended family in addition to his wife and children.

Mary Rockwell eventually sought treatment for depression at the Austen Riggs Center, a move her husband supported and financed. By 1953, with the boys on their own, the Rockwells moved to Stockbridge to be closer to the clinic. Norman Rockwell also entered therapy for depression.

In Stockbridge, the couple found a sense of renewal over the next several years, but Mary died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1959. Rockwell was left alone again, this time a widower.

Two years later, he married Mary (Molly) Punderson, a Stockbridge native and schoolteacher who was said to be more intellectual and liberal than her husband. Nonetheless, she was a congenial and encouraging partner who helped organize his work schedule and finances and joined him in the world travels he loved.

The 1960s became a transformative decade for Rockwell and the magazine industry.

Television was cutting into readership, and publishers were driven to focus less on fiction and more on contemporary events and personalities -- illustrated by photographs.

In 1963, Rockwell took the momentous step of ending his relationship with the stagnating Post and signing on with the more progressive Look magazine. Look allowed him far more latitude to express his opinions on issues, a step his wife encouraged.

In the civil rights movement, the space program, the Vietnam War and Middle East conflicts, Rockwell confronted topics far beyond the cozy parameters he'd previously pictured.

And he rose to the challenge.

Two civil rights-era paintings based on real-life incidents stand out as among the most powerful of his career: "The Problem We All Live With" shows a young black girl passing a wall of racial epithets as she enters an integrated school escorted by U.S. marshals, and "Murder in Mississippi"is a stark image of the Ku Klux Klan shooting three young civil rights workers.

Rockwell, who had reached retirement age, "could have sat back and been satisfied and not stretched himself," Pero said. "But he was always trying to go beyond what he'd already achieved, to experiment with other styles and new ideas."

To Rockwell Museum Director Laurie Norton Moffatt, the strength of his late work was evidence of his emotional growth as a man.

"As he went through life's stages, he matured," she said. "His work became deeper and richer in meaning."

In that, she compared him to filmmaker Steven Spielberg, a Rockwell admirer and museum benefactor who could produce a pop horror thriller like "Jaws" at age 29 and the profoundly moving "Schindler's List" at 47.

After his death, Rockwell's reputation grew. The mid-20th-century distinctions between fine and applied art became less important in the multi-faceted post-modern art scene, and auctions drove up the prices of Rockwell paintings, leading museums to reconsider his place in history and in their collections.

Time may consign some of his more nostalgic artworks to a back shelf, Moffatt said, "but others will always resonate because they deal with the human condition."

That is what impressed Cindy Gregson of Amsterdam, N.Y., who was visiting the Rockwell museum recently with her husband, Greg, on their 35th wedding anniversary.

"Each picture tells a story," she said. "You can stand at his work and look at [each one] for a very long rime."

For Rockwell biographer Solomon, "There is far more artistry in his ‘Saying Grace [1951]' or ‘The Connoisseur [1962]' than there is in countless second-rate abstract paintings that were praised during his lifetime by critics.

"Rockwell's best pictures can hold their own beside the Bentons of the ‘30s, the Hoppers of the ‘40s, the Pollocks of the ‘50s or the Warhols of the ‘60s," she said.

"At his finest," said The New York Times' Heller, referring to Rockwell's civil rights images, "he was our Vermeer. He was a master."

To reach Charles Bonenti: (413) 496 6211, cbonenti@berkshireeagle.com


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