The art critic Deborah Solomon has performed a rescue operation of the first rank in her new biography, American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell.
So successful is this operation, and the appearance of this biography, that one might soon expect Rockwell to be viewed by a small but highly influential circle of critics as the equal of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and the other worthies comprising the New York School of Art, namely Abstract Expressionism in mid-twentieth century America.
Solomon has written with verve and illumination about those artists, notably Pollock, but her newest biography powerfully and painstakingly gets to the foundation of why elite critics should add Rockwell to the small pantheon of great twentieth-century American painters. In her view, the demarcation is excellence on the canvas, and she makes a strong case that Rockwell’s achievements make him one of the country’s greatest painters of that troubled century.
Rockwell, she argues, was a painter of exceptional craftsmanship, deep feeling, refinement, and astonishing attention to detail. His ability to truly “see” was a rare gift. Despite the deceptive simplicity of the narrative of American life that he chose as his recurring theme, there is a great mystery to Rockwell the artist, a mystery that Solomon analyzes with sympathy and probity.
Although Rockwell’s depictions of everyday American life seem eminently graspable—family, church, community—“the permanent things,” in Eliot’s lush phrase—when one looks more attentively at his paintings, all kinds of remarkable and complex details emerge. Indeed, the multiplicity of those details is part of the mystery comprising and compelling recognition of Rockwell’s artistic greatness.
How did the reputation of such a skilled painter come to need rescuing? He never lacked for popular recognition. The American people loved, even revered, most of his work. He was immensely famous as the creator of all those Saturday Evening Post covers. Even today, Rockwell’s work has never been more popular. Of the 322 covers he painted for The Saturday Evening Post, three of them recently sold at Sotheby’s for nearly $60 million. One of those three, “Saying Grace,” sold for $46 million, the most ever paid for one of his works of art.
How did a painter as gifted as Rockwell—peerless, even uncanny in his ability to observe and then transfer onto canvas the world about him—come to be held in such intemperate derision by influential critics and writers? Why the disconnect between general approbation and elite scorn? Was the elite view rooted in the fact that he was seen by critics as a glorified illustrator? Or that he was thought to be too folksy, too kitschy, too jingoistic, too predictable?
The answer, at one remove, is definitively yes. The anti-Rockwell thesis was exemplified by liberal writer Dwight MacDonald. He viewed the painter not only as the chief exemplar of middlebrow, mass culture—of common tastes and sentiments—but also as a chief progenitor of nostalgia and cheap sentimentality that lacked authentic emotion. This critique had a deep taproot, which made the negation of Rockwell almost de rigueur among some intellectuals for most of his lifetime.
Also, Rockwell worked for the Philadelphia-based Post Company, which wanted to hollow out the New Deal and end the tenure of Franklin Roosevelt. Although Rockwell’s politics were not rooted in animus to FDR or an expanding federal government, his professional association did not help him with the otherwise liberal, pro-FDR intelligentsia.
One sustained and ill-informed series of attacks, beginning in the 1950s, was rooted in a misguided view that Modernism alone captured and evoked deep feeling while Rockwellian realism did not. Some defenders of Modernism held too that only Abstract Expressionism and its related non-objective schools of painting were authentic and true, while realism was in its essence superficial, substance-lite, and shallow.
As the art capital of the western world moved from Paris to New York City after World War II, led not only by Pollock and de Kooning but also by Hans Hofman, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman, these arguments against Rockwell and other realists grew into a widely held narrative: realism was artistically second-class and unworthy of serious consideration or emulation in the better art academies and museums. And there the consensus on Rockwell’s work remained, by and large, until a handful of critics like Solomon began seriously reevaluating Rockwell and other realists in the 1990s.
That reappraisal of Rockwell’s oeuvre culminated in a path-breaking and even remarkable exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2001, with other major exhibitions to follow, none greater than the breathtakingly beautiful Rockwell show at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington in 2010–2011. That show brought not only record crowds to the museum but also garnered rave reviews from critics of note who only a few years earlier might well have been predicable Rockwell nemeses.
What is it those critics saw in his paintings for the first time, and what is it in Solomon’s biography that has culminated in this historic turn in our understanding of Norman Rockwell? In other words, what is it that calls out for his recognition as an excellent painter apart from ideological motivations? What helps him escape the recurring charge that he should be ranked merely with the great illustrators Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth? What makes his work worthy of hanging in our greatest museums alongside other masters?
Solomon does a magnificent job of evoking the lustrous nature of his art. She takes us deep inside some of his most famous paintings and guides us toward a deeper appreciation of the spontaneity and dynamism of action going on there instead of the placidity and drollery that so many critics falsely charged Rockwell of representing about the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.
Solomon demonstrates how those critics, by and large, made significant mistakes. Some of the most important ones had not bothered to look closely either at what was going on or, more importantly, at what Rockwell was seeking to reveal and convey with such dexterity on those luminous canvases.
What emerges in her telling is a kind of kaleidoscopic view of stability, continuity, order, and goodness rooted in a mostly healthy civil society. Rockwell is the great American painter of the common good. He captures daily life with matchless elegance, sympathy, and refinement. But he is never at war with modernity or the new either.
Solomon sees all this as a kind of “communitarian” generosity of spirit, resulting in a flood of gratitude and depth of feeling that is beautiful, just, and true. She helps the reader discern why Rockwell is not aiming for pell-mell kitsch or sentiment but rather for a reflection of reality worthy of our most serious and sophisticated consideration. How refreshing. Three paintings might serve as an example.
“Freedom from Want,” painted in 1943, depicts an American Thanksgiving table, headed by the matriarch and patriarch of the nuclear family, serving a fulsome turkey to members of their clan, smiles all around, and none more so than Rockwell himself, who is grinning up at us from the bottom right corner. It is the largeness of the bird—as a symbol of the goodness and fulsomeness of America—that takes center stage, and in those heady years of war and conflict after Pearl Harbor, a kind of gratitude for home and hearth flows naturally forward to the viewer. Rockwell has captured the era of a worthy country that begins with the local: nationhood as a place of family and hearth.
“Marriage License,” painted in 1955, might be seen as a kind of book-end to the Thanksgiving picture. Here we see an excited, beautiful young couple anxiously filling out the paperwork for their license while a seasoned, gritty clerk sits behind a roll-top desk, flanked by a cat. But it is the brightness of an open window over the desk, shining on the couple, dotted with one red rose outside, that lends such poignancy to the painting. The young bride to be dons a luminous yellow dress and we are drawn to ask: What is that wry clerk actually thinking? Invariably, we are smitten by the depiction of the goodness of a new marriage, by the complementarity and sanctity of man and woman, and by a kind of American consecration of a new family, a little platoon, on the cusp and about to commence. Innocence.
My own favorite Rockwell painting, “The Connoisseur,” from 1962, depicts the acceptance of prudent change as a reality of life. It is of a finely tailored gentleman in a grey flannel suit—cuffs on his pants tightly creased just above his wingtips, tightly rolled umbrella, a Homburg grasped behind his back with one hand still-gloved, just so—viewing a Jackson Pollock painting, perhaps at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The juxtaposition of the seeming traditionalist, on this hand, viewing the avant-garde painting, on the other hand, is just marvelous. Rockwell captures something significant in this painting. There is contrast with no discontinuity, fragmentation, interruption, or asymmetry. He makes it cohere in a very American way.
The traditionalist is no baffled fuddy-duddy. If this were an English painting, we might imagine a duffer who was troubled by the splattering of modernity before him. Instead, this is Rockwell’s America—conforming ever so incrementally, if dispassionately, to a new era. Is this America’s coming of age, the next step in Western painting and civilization being reconciled to a man perhaps born at the turn of the last century? This is Rockwell at his finest.
The uncomfortable side to this otherwise important book is Solomon’s engagement with the private life of Rockwell: Thrice-married; years of therapy with the famed analyst, Erik Erikson, in the artist’s adopted town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, home to the great Rockwell Museum; spouses who lack the attention from an artist-husband who pours his energy and love into his art and not them; distance between children and father; a longing for belonging on Rockwell’s part; and most controversially questions about his sexuality. The attention on these details in the end detracts from the author’s achieved, laser-like focus on the greatness of Rockwell’s art after a half-century of critical neglect.
The book is titled American Mirror because of what Solomon says Rockwell’s art reflects about America from the 1920s to the 1970s. But another title might have been An Act of Recovery for the manner in which the author confidently and substantively reintroduces us to a colossus of the American canvas. Rockwell’s stock is rising, and for all the right reasons, rooted in merit and sheer excellence.
Tim Goeglein is currently a vice president at Focus on the Family.
Posted: December 8, 2013