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American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell

By Deborah Solomon

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

493 pages, $28.

By Richard Huntington

News Book Reviewer

When I was an aspiring teen artist growing up in Albany, the walls of my bedroom were plastered with covers from the Saturday Evening Post, my handy portable art gallery in a house and a city where anything as esoteric as painting was nowhere in sight. Of course, prominent among the Post artists on display was the work of Norman Rockwell, America’s most beloved artist and the one I planned to emulate in my upcoming career as a famous magazine illustrator.

Deborah Solomon tells us in the introduction to her captivating biography, “American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell,” that when she was hanging art posters on the walls of her bedroom, the artist so honored was Helen Frankenthaler, the precocious young painter who wowed the art world in the early 1950s with her abstract veils of fluid color and spontaneous brushwork. By then modern art was fully entrenched in the consciousness of those in the know, and its latest dominating manifestation, Abstract-Expressionism, had wiped such antiquated figures as Norman Rockwell entirely off the art map.

“Rockwell? Oh, God,” she writes. “He was viewed as a cornball and a square, a convenient symbol of the bourgeois values modernism sought to topple.” My “Oh, God, not Rockwell” moment came in high school when I watched my art teacher earnestly turning the charming city scene outside the classroom window into a stack of unsteady cubes. Cubism became my passion, and it quickly replaced my erstwhile love for Rockwell’s cozy vision of American life.

It took me until the mid-1980s to come full circle. A moment of nostalgia got me thinking about my favorite Rockwell Post cover back when I was a kid-artist. It was called “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” and held a prominent place on my wall and in my memory. Painted in 1950, it showed a view through the window of a closed barbershop, revealing a shadowy interior where a black cat peered inward, the embers in a potbellied stove glowed red in the dim and a barber’s chair sat empty, its gleaming chrome details caught in a shaft of yellow light that cut across bare wooden floor boards.

The light came from a brightly lit back room where three elderly men can be seen playing classical musical instruments with perhaps a fourth figure out of view to complete an after-hours quartet. It seemed to me to be a space enveloped in a melancholy that had been suddenly and joyfully dispelled by that bright back room. I recalled the surge of emotions that it stirred and my adolescent judgment that it must be capital-letter Great Art.

So I looked it up and discovered that my teenage judgment wasn’t that far off. Maybe it wasn’t Great Art, but it was a good painting by any standard. I dragged out my ancient copy of “My Adventures as an Illustrator” (Rockwell’s 1960 autobiography) and, much to my surprise, found many excellent, well-composed, if not downright beautiful, paintings among the wacky caricatures, overly rigged scenarios and those cursed Colonial America fantasies. I liked Norman Rockwell again. I had been rehabilitated, right along with Rockwell’s reputation.

Solomon thinks so much of “Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” she has titled a chapter after it. She says that the painting, which to her is more of an image of loneliness and exclusion than of joy, “ranks as one of his five or six best works.” Rockwell retains the American small-town coziness but now, Solomon asserts, he has flawlessly melded it to 17th century Dutch realism to make what is a “remarkably evolved magazine cover.”

Like Rockwell, Solomon knows her audience. Many art people will read this book, no doubt. But it’s likely that many more will be focused on Rockwell, the supreme American storyteller in paint, the one artist who best represents a distant, memory-burnished time when people said hello in the streets and cops gave counsel to runaways kids, when a whole neighborhood greeted a returning soldier, when boys (never girls with Rockwell) ran freely to the swimmin’ hole with their shaggy mutts at their heels. None of these Rockwell-painted tales was quite real – as the adjective “Rockwellian” suggests – but by limiting and focusing the emotional effects and meticulously rendering the visual effects, they were often highly believable and emotionally satisfying.

Many readers will not care a hoot about art talk. They only want the man and his stories. Perhaps it is with those readers in mind that Solomon keeps her art analysis soft. She goes so far with a painting, but then trails off. She avoids close formal scrutiny the way Rockwell avoided angst-ridden characters.

At a number of points, buffing up Rockwell’s artistic credentials, Solomon sets out teases about how Rockwell might be seen in a more thoroughgoing analysis. For example, his penchant for storytelling and jokiness and his reliance on photography, she says, offer the possibility of viewing Rockwell as something of a proto-postmodernist. Really? It would be interesting to hear how Rockwell’s quiet wit and sweet irony might fit in with the overblown and grotesque humor and the often vicious bathos of so many contemporary postmod artists. Alas, Solomon fails to revisit this fascinating idea.

Perhaps this is for another book. The book she did write is a graceful interweaving of light art commentary and biographical facts. Solomon is marvelous at ferreting out connections to Rockwell’s life and his art. After helpfully observing that Rosie the Riveter was directly based on the twisted pose of Michelangelo’s prophet Isaiah on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, she quickly turns to the controversy over the size of Rosie’s upper arms, which so offended Rockwell’s slender model, Mary Doyle. She never expected to see “a female behemoth sprung from the dark lagoon of Rockwell’s imagination,” as Solomon colorfully describes it. Rockwell called up his model and apologized for making her look so mannish.

Solomon repeatedly asserts that the only intimacy that Rockwell seemed to require was the company of his male friends. This is certainly born out in his relationships with women; his last wife, Molly Punderson, was the only one of the three who seemed to have had a relatively comfortable relationship with him. His first marriage, to Irene O’Connor, was a disaster from the start and ended in divorce. His second wife, Mary, was, according to Solomon’s account, a talented woman who may very well have been pushed along toward alcoholism and psychological derailment by a husband who was inattentive, was dismissive of her needs and much preferred the company of his fishing trip buddies. Solomon fashions what amounts to a mini-bio of Mary, following closely her sad downward spiral to an early death.

Solomon is generally sympathetic and respectful of the windings of Rockwell’s many psychological insecurities. But at times she implies too strongly that the artist had pedophilic impulses. An incident where Rockwell asked the parents of one of his boy models for the boy’s pants in order to check the color comes close to an indictment of the artist. “It’s an unsettling anecdote,” she writes. “We are made to wonder if Rockwell’s complicated interest in the depiction of preadolescent boys was shadowed by pedophilic impulses.” It makes Solomon wonder, not necessarily the rest of us. The artist was famously persnickety about the exactitude of an object’s color. He often claimed that he was incapable of imagining an object and its color without the object in hand. Maybe he was just trying to get the color right.

Where does Rockwell stand as an artist today? Solomon gives him his due, recognizing Rockwell’s originality, intelligence and his prowess as a storyteller. She sees him as pictorially inventive and in control of a superb painting technique. She never does quite – almost, but not quite – get around to allowing the artist entry into the pantheon of great American artists.

For my part, I’m ready to put him there right now. Who but Rockwell could come up with the marvelous, self-deprecating comedy of identity of “Triple Self-Portrait?” Who but Rockwell could have approached with such unfettered candor the image of the 6-year-old Ruby Bridges on her way to an all-white school in “The Problem We All Live With?” And then there’s my favorite Rockwell fine art parody, “The Connoisseur,” with its micromanaged “Jackson Pollock” and a man who from the back looks remarkably like Pollock’s famous peer Barnett Newman.

So, OK, here we go: in my Alphabetical List of Great American Painters I’m going to insert – jarring though it may be to some – the name Norman Rockwell, right in there between Robert Rauschenberg and Mark Rothko. It’s done. No more reassessing. Let’s finally give this fine American artist the place he deserves.

Richard Huntington is an art critic emeritus of The Buffalo News