American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell
"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Deborah Solomon, a biographer and art critic, draws on a wealth of unpublished letters and documents to explore the relationship between Rockwell's despairing personality and his genius for reflecting America's brightest hopes.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.
October 20, 1964, two Tuesdays before Election Day. FULL COLOR, the magazine boasted with uppercase excitement on its cover, as if color photography, which was still fairly new in popular magazines, somehow mirrored the revolution in sexual mores and offered a lusty antidote to the camouflage of the gray-flannel fifties. The portrait of Johnson, with his long face and droopy hound dog ears, cannot be said to have rehabilitated the tired tradition of the presidential portrait. But it is probably
Molly had only to turn on the coffee pot the next morning to set everything percolating. She made sure to lay out “enough sugar lumps for Norman,”9 who preferred his beverages on the sweet side. As often as not he found himself up at first light, eager to get going, and he would go fetch Molly from across the hall, from her room with a narrow bed. Molly was sturdy and adroit and uncomplaining. She was the one seated behind the steering wheel whenever she and Norman went out for a drive in the
began contributing short stories to the Post. George Horace Lorimer believed his stories could bring the magazine a new generation of readers, whose spending habits were giving rise to an advertising market whose dollars he also hoped to attract. Fitzgerald’s famous story the “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” ran in the issue of May 1, 1920, and caused an uproar. Parents who read it took offense, while their daughters thrilled to its implicit endorsement of women who wear lipstick and stay out late. The
was timely, but astonishingly dull. Coinciding with that year’s Indianapolis 500, it shows a race car driver sitting in his sleek red vehicle in the moments before the race begins. It is shot from above, and angled so that a taut stretch of red—the car’s hood—dominates the photograph. Truth be told, it wasn’t just Rockwell’s fixation with small-town geezers that disenchanted Stout. It was the whole tradition of magazine illustration, which now had to compete with photography. Henry Luce’s Life
of the most ambitious plays of white-against-white since Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 1. * * * Freedom from Fear, the last of the four pictures, is the most anecdotal. It invites you into an upstairs bedroom with a low, slanting roof, and is usually described as a painting about a mother and father putting the kids to bed. Actually, the boy and girl are already asleep—they share a narrow bed, their heads heavy on their pillows, and their parents are looking in on them before they turn