American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell
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"Welcome to Rockwell Land," writes Deborah Solomon in the introduction to this spirited and authoritative biography of the painter who provided twentieth-century America with a defining image of itself. As the star illustrator of The Saturday Evening Post for nearly half a century, Norman Rockwell mingled fact and fiction in paintings that reflected the we-the-people, communitarian ideals of American democracy. Freckled Boy Scouts and their mutts, sprightly grandmothers, a young man standing up to speak at a town hall meeting, a little black girl named Ruby Bridges walking into an all-white school―here was an America whose citizens seemed to believe in equality and gladness for all.
Who was this man who served as our unofficial "artist in chief" and bolstered our country's national identity? Behind the folksy, pipe-smoking façade lay a surprisingly complex figure―a lonely painter who suffered from depression and was consumed by a sense of inadequacy. He wound up in treatment with the celebrated psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. In fact, Rockwell moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts so that he and his wife could be near Austen Riggs, a leading psychiatric hospital. "What's interesting is how Rockwell's personal desire for inclusion and normalcy spoke to the national desire for inclusion and normalcy," writes Solomon. "His work mirrors his own temperament―his sense of humor, his fear of depths―and struck Americans as a truer version of themselves than the sallow, solemn, hard-bitten Puritans they knew from eighteenth-century portraits."
Deborah Solomon, a biographer and art critic, draws on a wealth of unpublished letters and documents to explore the relationship between Rockwell's despairing personality and his genius for reflecting America's brightest hopes. "The thrill of his work," she writes, "is that he was able to use a commercial form [that of magazine illustration] to thrash out his private obsessions." In American Mirror, Solomon trains her perceptive eye not only on Rockwell and his art but on the development of visual journalism as it evolved from illustration in the 1920s to photography in the 1930s to television in the 1950s. She offers vivid cameos of the many famous Americans whom Rockwell counted as friends, including President Dwight Eisenhower, the folk artist Grandma Moses, the rock musician Al Kooper, and the generation of now-forgotten painters who ushered in the Golden Age of illustration, especially J. C. Leyendecker, the reclusive legend who created the Arrow Collar Man.
Although derided by critics in his lifetime as a mere illustrator whose work could not compete with that of the Abstract Expressionists and other modern art movements, Rockwell has since attracted a passionate following in the art world. His faith in the power of storytelling puts his work in sync with the current art scene. American Mirror brilliantly explains why he deserves to be remembered as an American master of the first rank.
Homecoming, the defining image of holiday togetherness, appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post on December 25, 1948. Grandma Moses had her heartbreaks, too. In February, just six months after she had her cameo in the Christmas Homecoming cover, her son Hugh suffered a fatal heart attack. He was forty-nine years old. Although Grandma had been on the cover of the Post, in that picture showing a strapping boy coming home for Christmas, in real life, Hugh would never come home again.20
Freedoms and become America’s painter in chief. Moreover, it was here that he had painted Shuffleton’s Barbershop in 1950 and Saying Grace in 1952, masterpieces of illustration that Americanized Dutch realism. After he moved away from Arlington, Rockwell put its residents out of his mind almost instantly. “If someone had been a very close friend,” Chris Schafer recalled, “when Norman moved, or when they moved, it was as if they had never existed. Everyone complained that he never kept in touch.
evenings, he gave the most clumsily personal answer. He confessed to spending countless hours tearing bolts of diaper cloth into paint rags. “We use a lot of rags to wipe the paint off with,” he explained. “I use this diaper cloth. It’s a wonderful cloth. It’s not only absorbent, but it doesn’t go through.” Murrow replied, “But I’m sure you’re eager to get back to doing it right now!” And that was the end of the interview. Three weeks after the show, a humorous “Talk of the Town” item in The
preciseness that made his painted world all the more compelling. FOURTEEN ARLINGTON, VERMONT (NOVEMBER 1938 TO SUMMER 1942) In the fall of 1938 Rockwell and Mary decided to buy a summer house in southern Vermont. Rockwell knew about the village of Arlington from his friends Fred Hildebrandt and Mead Schaeffer, who fished there every spring. It was on the Batten Kill River, which wound down from the Green Mountains and was said to be the best trout stream in Vermont. “Fred Hildebrandt got
depict the prelude or the afterward of a scene instead of the scene itself. He paints the moments at the periphery of the action—the tensely expectant slip of time before the prom, or before the date, or before a boy dives into a pool. Maybe he thinks that anticipating an event can be more dramatic than the event itself. Maybe the anxiety that comes before an event is the event. He also did his share of after-the-event scenes, such as his Homecoming G.I. Rockwell’s new dog, a springer spaniel