Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Norman Rockwell, "American Mirror"

In the early 1960s, my parents subscribed to The Saturday Evening Post. Dad’s shed was my “club house,” and sitting out there on summer days, I’d look through copies of the weekly magazine, stacked up in the corner. The magazine’s covers and articles were illustrated by artists. I was a decent sketcher and wondered if art might be a good career. I looked at the magazine’s website just now and found the names of illustrators of that era: not only Norman Rockwell, but also Richard Sergent, John Clymer, Robert G. Harris, Gilbert Bundy, and others. I still have a few of those old copies as childhood keepsakes. 

Browsing the Webster Groves Bookshop a few weeks ago, I purchased the new biography, American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell by Deborah Solomon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013). An art critic and journalist, she had the weekly column “Questions For” in the New York Times Magazine for several years.

Rockwell (1894-1978) won Americans' devotion with his art. Saying Grace---a painting of an older woman and a boy praying over their food in a restaurant, with curious patrons looking on---topped a poll among people's favorite Post cover. Rockwell’s Four Freedoms series is also popular, as well as works like Breaking Home Ties, Boy with Baby Carriage, Rosie the Riveter, The Problem We All Live With, The Gossips, Tattoo Artist, Girl at Mirror, Shuffleton’s Barbershop, Jockey Weighing In, Triple Self-Portrait, Stockbridge--Main Street at Christmas, and others. He painted several portraits, including Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. LBJ preferred Rockwell’s painting of him to the official portrait. Rockwell even did a rock album cover for Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield, and David Bowie approached him for a portrait (but he needed it sooner than Rockwell could provide). He produced over 4000 works: magazine covers, book illustrations, posters, murals, illustrations for advertisements, and others. He never aspired to sell his paintings to collectors or to display in fine-art galleries. His meticulous technique (realistic but not photo-realistic), his ability to tell a story in a single picture, and the care with which he set up the situations in his paintings, add to his works’ appeal.

Rockwell was born in New York, attended Chase Art School and the National Academy of Design, and sold his first illustration when he was eighteen. The same year (1912), he became staff artist for Boys’ Life. He was 21 when he sold his first cover to The Saturday Evening Post. Until 1963, he painted 323 covers for that magazine. He continued to provide paintings for Boys’ Life in addition to other magazines. His later paintings for Look dealt with topics on poverty, civil rights, and space exploration.

Rockwell married three times. His first marriage to Irene O’Connor was from 1916 till 1930 and ended in divorce. Living in California, he met Mary Barstow. They married and had three sons. They lived in New Rochelle, NY and then Arlington, VT, and later Stockbridge, MA. It was in Vermont and Massachusetts that Rockwell painted some of his popular depictions of small town themes. The family moved to Stockbridge so that Mary could have her alcoholism addressed at the psychiatric hospital there, but Rockwell himself also benefited at the hospital; he received treatment from psychologist Erik Erikson. After Mary died in 1959, he married “Mollie” Punderson in 1961. She survived him.

Solomon writes about the dismissal Rockwell suffered from art critics. “Rockwellesque” became a pejorative term for sentimental depictions of life. His painting The Connoisseur, depicting a man gazing at a Jackson Pollock-like painting, is for Solomon a masterpiece, and contrasts Rockwell with the abstract expressionists with whom critics compared him so unfavorably. But in recent times his work has been more honored. Solomon writes that the Guggenheim and other museums have had an exhibitions of his work, Rosie the Riveter sold at auction for nearly $5 million, and Breaking Home Ties was auctioned for over $15 million. After this biography was published, Saying Grace sold at auction to an anonymous buyer for $46 million.

"Election Day," 1948.
Solomon considers Rockwell’s complicated psychology. Especially when he was a young painter, he
was known for painting boys much more often than girls, and some of his behavior would cause accusations today, such as hanging around grade schools, looking for kids who might be models for his illustrations. But there is no evidence that Rockwell acted inappropriately with any boy. He was, however, cold to one boy whom he no longer needed for modeling, which had ill effects on the boy’s psyche. The boy's tragic death seems to have weighed on the artist.

Rockwell was compulsive about cleanliness and his food preferences. He was also extremely modest, refusing even to consider himself an artist. Women made him insecure. Throughout his life he searched for brotherly, masculine companionship; yet he was not close to his own older brother. His wives were discouraged that he preferred spending time in his studio than with his family. Rockwell never mentions his wife Mary's death (or much about his family) in his 1960 autobiography. The artist emerges from Solomon’s account as a person of considerable self-caused loneliness, who found more personal happiness in depicting family life, in the emotional safety of his studio, than he ever did in his own life. Interestingly, he was not particularly nostalgic about his own childhood.

Solomon considers him a postmodern artist who “shares with the current generation a historically self-conscious approach to picture making” (p. 11). The book’s title refers to Rockwell himself, “his work mirrors his own temperament---his sense of humor, his fear of depths---and struck Americans as a truer version of themselves...” (p. 10). He wasn't all positivity. In the jarring work The Problem We All Live With, a little black girl is escorted to school accompanied by faceless law enforcement figures, with tossed fruit and racial slurs prominent against the wall by which she walks. Even in Election Day, Rockwell depicts a humorous yet sad situation: a young couple is angry at each other, divided by the Dewey-Truman presidential campaign, as the child sits, crying and ignored. But good spirits and a tenderhearted view of life prevail across his oeuvre. She writes:

"Where, in his work, are disease and death? Where is his sense of existential dread? I would argue that angst is probably overrepresented in modern art. Surely we can make room for an artist who was more interested in running toward the light. Unlike his fellow realist Edward Hopper, whose work abounds with the long shadows of late afternoon, Rockwell prefers the light of morning; his work can put you in mind of that sunny, hopeful moment right before lunch" (pp. 10-11).

Although aspects of Rockwell's personality leave us sad, Solomon interprets his art with a civic vision---a sense of the common good---that I find admirable.

“The great subject of his work was American life... a homelier version steeped in the we-the-people, communitarian ideals of America’s founding in the eighteenth century. The people in his paintings are related less by blood than by their participation in civic rituals, from voting on Election Day to sipping a soda at a drugstore counter. Doctors spend time with patients whether or not they have health insurance. Students appreciate their teachers and remember their birthdays. Citizens at town hall meetings stand up and speak their mind without getting booed or shouted down by gun-toting ragaholics. This is America... before searing divisions in our government and general population shattered any semblance of national solidarity” (pp. 4-5).

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