Critic and journalist Deborah Solomon makes a strong case for Norman Rockwell being one of the great 20th century American artists in her deeply researched and beautifully written new biography “American Mirror” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).
Solomon’s earlier work includes biographies of Jackson Pollock and Joseph Cornell.
In the new book, she shows how Rockwell was grossly underrated during his lifetime because he did realistic paintings that were commissioned by The Saturday Evening Post. The combination of commerce and non-abstract work was a double whammy for most serious critics — indeed, Rockwell was considered beneath contempt and his work was rarely taken up by art world writers.
“He was viewed as a cornball and a square, a convenient symbol of the bourgeois values modernism sought to topple,” Solomon writes in her introduction. “He had the misfortune to come of age at a time when realist painting was written off as less ‘authentic’ than abstract painting. Critics denounced him as insufficiently angst ridden and overly cheery. What somehow got lost in the critical discussion is this: looking is an act of passion if you look hard enough.”
Ironically, Solomon’s decade of research unearthed material showing that Rockwell was as angst-ridden as any artist, and that his paintings were a fantasy of America that had almost no connection to his own life.
The artist was married three times. The second marriage, which produced Rockwell’s three sons, was a very troubled relationship in which the husband preferred the company of his male friends to that of his wife who drifted into alcoholism and a deteriorating mental state that required years of psychiatric care (include electro-shock treatment).
Rockwell himself became a long term patient of the famed analyst Erik Erickson.
One of the many surprises in “American Mirror” is the real reason Rockwell moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in middle age and then spent the rest of his life there. It wasn’t the picturesque nature of the New England hamlet that attracted him; he wanted to be close to the Austen Riggs Center where both Rockwells were treated by psychiatrists for many years.
“American Mirror” shows that Rockwell was an artist much like the Hollywood filmmaker Frank Capra — they both loved an American ideal that might be more myth than reality. The power of their best work came from an ability to depict that mythic country with such conviction that it became real — and much beloved — by millions of appreciative fans.
Solomon has run into some trouble for her non-salacious examination of Rockwell’s detachment from the women in his life, his preference for male company, and the barely hidden homoerotic elements in some of the paintings.
The critic in The Boston Globe called this material “leering insinuations about an artist’s deep, dark secrets” but there is no negative judgement — no “leering” — in Solomon’s brief treatment of Rockwell’s interest in men and boys as people and as subjects of his art.
The hysteria that can be found in some of the outrageous Amazon comments on “American Mirror” and in the virulently negative Internet reviews, is more an illustration of the continuing homophobia in our culture than an accurate description of what Solomon does in her gripping and illuminating look at an important figure in American art and pop culture.
(Solomon will be talking about “American Mirror” at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford on Jan. 16.)