A new biography of Norman Rockwell casts light on the man who hid behind his finely wrought paintings of archetypal American life.
Photo by Christian Oth
In 1955, the weekly general-interest magazine The Saturday Evening Post asked readers to select their favorite cover by the magazine’s star illustrator, Norman Rockwell. The image known as “Saying Grace” won overwhelmingly. It depicts an old lady and her grandson absorbed in prayer before lunch at a railway station diner, their bowed heads attracting bemused glances from an assortment of men dining nearby. A typically Rockwellian rendering, “Saying Grace” persists today as a masterpiece of the artist’s oeuvre. In December 2013, it was sold at Sotheby’s for $46 million, a record-breaking sum for an American painting.
The sale of “Saying Grace” coincided with the publication of Deborah Solomon’s new biography of Norman Rockwell, American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell. Hailed as “a revelation” by the New York Times and “brilliantly insightful” by the Wall Street Journal, the book unveils the idiosyncratic life of an artist whose primary subject was carefully observed scenes of wholesome Americana. Solomon, a critic and biographer of bona fide modernists Jackson Pollock and Joseph Cornell, is one of a cohort of revisionist historians who’ve helped to firmly entrench Norman Rockwell in the story of twentieth-century American art. It has been a dramatic reversal for the wiry, pipe-smoking illustrator, who, during his lifetime, was derided and dismissed by an art world smitten with Pollock’s paint splatters and Rothko’s planes of color. While abstract expressionism reigned, Rockwell was, Solomon writes, “viewed as a cornball and a square…a convenient symbol of the bourgeois values modernism sought to topple.”
American Mirror conveys that Rockwell’s vignettes of cheery neighbors, precocious boy scouts, and gossiping grandmothers held—despite a lack of support among professional critics—mass appeal with an American public seeking comfort in a fantasy of coherence. It also argues that while Rockwell’s paintings depict an America replete with communitarian optimism, the artist’s own life was far from picturesque. Rockwell’s childhood was marked by feelings of inadequacy and alienation that Solomon suggests he strived to reconcile throughout his adult life. Social anxieties left him most comfortable alone in the studio, but even there, he was compulsive about cleanliness and “the most nervous of realists, a painter who felt vulnerable when he shut his eyes.” His residence in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, was the location of his therapy sessions with the famed psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, and Rockwell’s relationships with women appear to have been largely dysfunctional; in Solomon’s account, he felt greater intimacy with his studio assistants and male models.
The book explores questions about Rockwell’s sexuality, taking note of the particular care he labors on young boys in his paintings and how much of his work portrays male togetherness with an absence of women. A hunting trip during which Rockwell and his assistant Fred Hildebrandt skinny-dip and share a bed provides more fodder. Solomon deliberately avoids the word “gay” and states that “there is nothing to suggest that he had sex with men.” Nonetheless, the book has ignited anger among members of the Rockwell family, who claim Solomon’s speculations are untrue and dangerous to Rockwell’s legacy.
I spoke with Deborah Solomon at her Upper West Side home on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 2013. Midway through our conversation, her son, home from college for the holiday, walked in and dropped his bags. Solomon stood up from the couch to embrace him, and their fluffy dog ran over to join in the communion. Outside, a storm was brewing. But the apartment, filled with art books, paintings, and photographs, glowed with familial warmth. It was something out of a Norman Rockwell.
—Meara Sharma for Guernica
Guernica: You begin American Mirror by admitting that you didn’t have a Norman Rockwell poster in your bedroom growing up. Rather, you had a poster of an abstract painting by Helen Frankenthaler, the color-field painter. Who was Norman Rockwell to you, long ago, before this book?
Deborah Solomon: Have you noticed that a lot of biographies open with the writer proclaiming a lifelong attachment to their subject? I didn’t have that with Rockwell. I’m not going to pretend that I pored over his covers at my kitchen table when I was five years old. I majored in art history at Cornell and was taught that Jackson Pollock was the savior of American painting. Why? Because he shifted—it was always said—the capital of the art world from Paris to New York.
Rockwell was not a part of my early education or my consciousness. During the heyday of modernism, he was viewed as a lowly calendar artist, an illustrator for the Boy Scouts and The Saturday Evening Post, a toxic culture polluter. But his reputation deepened with the advent of postmodernism. Robert Rosenblum—the great art historian and Picasso scholar who’s no longer alive—did a retrospective of Rockwell’s work at the Guggenheim Museum. That was in 2001. I was blown away by the show.
In many ways, magazine illustrators are supposed to be forgotten over time. That is the definition of illustration. Like a newspaper article, a magazine illustration is supposed to convey a piece of information to the public and only last until the next one is published, the next magazine or the next day’s newspaper. It’s not supposed to last forever. So the question about Rockwell is why are we still talking about him thirty-five years after his death? And why has his work turned out to have the mystery and staying power that one expects of the abstract painting of his era?
Guernica: Because he was more than “just” an illustrator?
Deborah Solomon: He transcends illustration. And he throws a monkey wrench into the whole classification process that insists on a wide gap between high and low art. Art critics were way too consumed with categorization in the past century. And that partly reflected a desire to proclaim the greatness of modernism. Modernism was supposed to be something that alienated the general public. It was supposed to be difficult, it was supposed to be for the happy few, it was not supposed to have a populist appeal.
On the most literal level, Rockwell didn’t want to be a modernist because modernism in painting meant breaking the picture plane—i.e., cubism. He didn’t want to break the picture plane. He didn’t want to go below the surface. And modernism also meant giving up narrative. Well, giving up plot. Rockwell was a storyteller. His hero was Charles Dickens. Modernism didn’t appeal to the part of him that wanted to tell stories.
Rockwell was an anti-bohemian. He didn’t want to stay up late. He didn’t want to skip lunch. He had his shoes polished on fishing trips. He washed his paintings with Ivory soap. And he didn’t want to have a lot of casual sex.
Guernica: He also didn’t like the behavior that tended to go along with being an artist.
Deborah Solomon: True. He was an anti-bohemian. He didn’t want to stay up late. He didn’t want to skip lunch. He was a cautious and fastidious personality. He had his shoes polished on fishing trips. He washed his paintings with Ivory soap. And he didn’t want to have a lot of casual sex. There was something very chaste about his nature. But this was not the nature of illustration at all. Other illustrators had flashy girlfriends who posed for their work and came to represent the modern woman.
Guernica: Whereas Rockwell had young boys who posed for him.
Deborah Solomon: Exactly. Young boys and young men and old men. He was basically a painter of the male figure. At one point, in 1921, he received a letter from a reader of The Saturday Evening Post who wanted to know why he painted more boys than girls. His wife Irene wrote back, and I quote directly: “No, he doesn’t dislike girls…but he likes to paint boys better. They are easier for him to paint.” I think that was always true of him.
Guernica: The Rockwell who emerges in your book felt severely inadequate from a very young age, overwhelmed by his athletic older brother and alienated from his parents. It’s striking to realize how different his childhood was from the children and families he depicts in his paintings.
Deborah Solomon: You could make a case that he was recreating his childhood in his paintings. He often remarked that in his childhood, he had felt singularly unmasculine. He was thin. He had a small chin and narrow, sloping shoulders. And this was the Teddy Roosevelt era when boys were expected to hunt and shoot elephants. That’s when men first became devoted to bodybuilding and developing exaggerated musculature. That certainly had a lasting influence on him.
In his life and his work, he was obsessed with rugged boys. And it kept going till the end. Usually it’s something you outgrow. If you’re a boy who feels wimpy and likes being around the tough athletic boys, that’s something you might get over by the time you go to college. He never got over it. He tended to befriend artists who fished and hunted and got mud on their shoes.
Most artists probably feel lonely or set apart in childhood. But they grow up and find people who share their interests [laughs]. I don’t know why he felt so alienated his entire life. I’m not a shrink. There’s only so much you can know about a person. You can’t know everything. And you just have to live with that, as a biographer.
Guernica: I gather he wasn’t a very forthcoming subject?
Deborah Solomon: He kept a lot hidden. He didn’t leave extensive diaries or too many revealing letters. And the things he did say were often misleading. He was the type of person who used language to obfuscate and mislead. He was also very bad with dates. In his autobiography, so many dates are incorrect. The book is riddled with factual errors.
Guernica: Do you think he was trying to leave a legacy that somehow shrouded who he really was?
Deborah Solomon: He was a great self-mythologizer. It was probably less about leaving a legacy than wanting to be adored in the present. He created what he thought was a lovable public persona. He told a lot of jokes. He was an entertainer. He did not express himself with any depth through his words. But his artwork is different. Art never lies, I believe. When you look at a work of art, you don’t see a cover for something else; you see revelation. If you’re an artist, art is the truest expression of yourself. Even if you’re painting a life you don’t have.
Guernica: It’s hard not to keep thinking about how deeply anxious Rockwell was about his own medium. One vignette in particular stood out: when Rockwell’s young son Peter is sick, he asks his father to entertain him by drawing some clowns. And Rockwell refuses, telling Peter he can’t work from memory.
Deborah Solomon: Isn’t that an amazing anecdote? He couldn’t draw unless he had the model in front of him. If he was painting a piano he had to have the piano in front of him. He once lugged a buggy up into his studio. He was a nervous realist. He was afraid to paint without the armature of a physical object—or later, a photograph of a physical object. And he was shackled by this. He was a fastidious man who could not live freely in his own skin, who was afraid of his own imagination.
Guernica: And yet you write about how Rockwell isn’t just painting real things—he’s piecing together bits and pieces of the real into new inventions. Like “Rosie the Riveter”—he used the head of one person and the limbs of another.
Deborah Solomon: Yes, he uses the precision of academic history painting to create a fantasy America. It’s a mingling of fiction and nonfiction, a constant process of combination and recombination.
I was able to interview Anthony Philip, a psychiatrist who lived in Rockwell’s house and who later became head of counseling at Columbia. He was very helpful in explaining how Rockwell was obsessive-compulsive. Rockwell would do things with shocking efficiency, like replace the carpet on the stairs in ten minutes when it wore out. As he got older, Rockwell noted that he was cleaning more and more in his studio. He’d joke about how he was worried that one day he’d stop painting and just clean up.
Maybe the pleasure that attaches to the artistic life comes in imagining what we might do as opposed to acknowledging what we have done. And if you’re any good, the results have to seem smaller than what you set out to do.
Guernica: Do you think Rockwell got emotional pleasure from his work?
Deborah Solomon: That’s such a good question. We hope he got pleasure from his work. But at what point? Kurt Vonnegut was once asked: “Where is the payoff in writing? When do you get pleasure?” And Vonnegut replied that he feels happy when he hands his work over to an editor, because then it’s someone else’s responsibility.
I wouldn’t think Rockwell felt pleasure the moment he saw his work on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post, in print. I think he’d notice the imperfections. He used to say that he woke up every morning feeling hopeful. He’d get up early, drink his two bottles of Coke—for caffeine, never coffee, always Coke—and be in his studio by 8 a.m. He felt excited about the day that lay ahead of him and the possibility that he would be able to do something constructive. But he was always despairing by the end of the day, insisting that he had gotten nothing done. Or rather what he considered nothing. That’s a kind of creative cycle that many artists or writers can identify with. I know on Thursdays I always feel a sense of relief, that thank god there’s one more day—one more day left to the week in which I can accomplish everything I have failed to accomplish in my fifty-six years of life on earth.
So maybe the pleasure that attaches to the artistic life comes in imagining what we might do as opposed to acknowledging what we have done. And if you’re any good, the results have to seem smaller than what you set out to do. If, in the end, you’re super pleased with your artwork, that’s a bad sign. That kind of self-satisfaction suggests you may not be that talented as an artist. What is less attractive than smugness? You can’t make first-rate art if you’re smug. Because making art requires incredible self-criticism. You have to be willing to see what is wrong with your creation. You have to be willing to tear it up and start again. You have to be willing to recognize failure. If, on the other hand, you love everything you do, you will probably end up with mediocre work. I think dissatisfaction with the state of things does propel creative people forward.
Guernica: In the early 1940s, Rockwell embarked on different projects, like the series of paintings that illustrated President Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms.” I wonder if that was driven by a quest to be more relevant.
Deborah Solomon: Definitely. At that point he had been painting pictures of boys and their mutts for more than twenty years. He wanted to do something of great significance and imbue his work with moral largeness. The reason we’re still talking about F.D.R.’s “Four Freedoms” is because Rockwell was able to portray them so powerfully. We all know what they are: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. Without Rockwell, they might have been a mere footnote to American history.
When he created the paintings, which were eventually used to raise money for the sale of war bonds, he became America’s unofficial painter-in-chief. Which was obviously very gratifying for him. He went to Washington and was hailed as a national hero. And then he immediately returned home to Arlington, Vermont, and burned down his studio [laughs]. He had that big fire right after he finished his “Four Freedoms” paintings. I’m not going to speculate that he burned down his studio because he was uncomfortable with the acclaim, but certainly there’s some link between the acclaim and the destruction of his studio.
Guernica: It wasn’t an accident?
Deborah Solomon: Didn’t Freud say there’s no such thing as an accident? It was an accident. But the timing was strange.
Guernica: Speaking of Freud, American Mirror delves deeply into Rockwell’s relationship with psychoanalysis. He and his family lived for many years in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, a small town that seemed to reflect the innocent, small-town scenes Rockwell painted. But he was really there so that he and his wife could be treated at the Austen Riggs Psychiatric Center. How do you think Rockwell’s relationship with Erik Erikson, the psychoanalyst, influenced his painting?
Deborah Solomon: Once he started his treatment with Erikson, in 1953, his work became less jokey. You see him trying to connect with deep emotion rather than just laughing everything off. He banished the caricature element in his work—the cartoony expressions on male faces—and went for a more somber realism. “Girl at Mirror,” “Saying Grace,” “The Connoisseur”—those paintings are essentially joke-free. They’re not about a one-liner. Erikson, of course, was born in Germany and came to this country as a refugee from Hitler. He encouraged Rockwell to think about larger themes, particularly larger political themes. But Rockwell probably became more political during this period because everyone in America became more political in the 1960s. So in that sense he was still telling the American narrative, which had shifted from the communal goals of the World War II years to the restlessness and civil rights protests of the 1960s. Again, he was reflecting where America was at a particular moment in time.
Guernica: Was Rockwell truly interested in civil rights?
Deborah Solomon: Yes, he was passionately interested in equal rights for all Americans. His painting “The Problem We All Live With,” often known as the Ruby Bridges painting, displays such incredible empathy for the girl Ruby Bridges. Rockwell felt very close to her. And he believed in it completely, the vision of tolerance he put forth in that canvas. He did a number of other civil rights paintings as well. “Moving In,” for example, is about integration, about black kids moving into a white neighborhood. He understood the goals of the civil rights movement. And the nobility of it all.
Rockwell wasn’t Mark Rothko painting moody black clouds or Jackson Pollock spewing out his emotions on a canvas. He was painting a very sunny place.
Guernica: In a review of American Mirror in The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl states that you “plumb a suspicion (almost de rigueur in biography-writing lately) of homosexuality.” Rockwell’s sexuality is certainly a question that comes up again and again as we learn of his intense relationships with men and boys throughout his life. For example, there’s the hunting and fishing trip he took with his studio assistant, Fred Hildebrandt, when they shared a bed, and Rockwell wrote in his diary: “Fred is most fetching in his long flannels.”
Deborah Solomon: I do point that out, but I don’t draw any conclusions from it. I don’t think that Rockwell’s sexuality—or anyone else’s—is finally knowable to biographers or anyone else, with the exception of psychiatrists. But as an art critic and an art historian, I do feel comfortable analyzing Rockwell’s work, and one important aspect of it is the attention he lavished on male figures throughout his career. His paintings of men and boys far outnumber those with female subjects and, by his own admission, he could not paint a sexy woman.
Guernica: That point has caused a lot of controversy lately. There’s a good deal of angry criticism on your Amazon page. And some members of Rockwell’s family are publicly outraged by what your book might insinuate.
Deborah Solomon: If I were writing about Picasso and pointed out that he painted women because he was interested in the female form, that would seem like an obvious point. I don’t know why people revolt when I point out that Rockwell painted the male figure and was interested in it.
Guernica: But are you saying he was gay?
Deborah Solomon: No, I am saying he painted the male figure. He did so for one of two reasons. Some people say he painted boys because it turned out to be a lucrative niche for him. But that suggests he was a hack, that he painted for money, and I don’t believe he was a hack. I believe he was a true artist who was emotionally invested in his work and felt connected to the figures in his pictures.
Guernica: It seems his most intimate relationships were with his models and studio assistants.
Deborah Solomon: He liked having male friends around to help him and prop him up and provide company. He was able to connect with them in a way he couldn’t with his wives.
Guernica: But he did paint some memorable women, didn’t he?
Deborah Solomon: Of course, but some of his most memorable women tend to be boyish or masculine, such as “Rosie the Riveter,” with her bulging muscles, or “Girl With Black Eye.”
Guernica: What was it like to interview his former models?
Deborah Solomon: Some of them idolize him and speak lovingly of the experience. Others were unhappy that they had to stand for thirty minutes with their head tilted at a sharp angle until it hurt. The one model who would certainly have interesting stories was Billy Payne, who fell out of a window—fell to his death—at the age of fifteen. Billy posed for Rockwell before Rockwell was using photographs. They spent a lot of time together. But Rockwell dropped him as a model when Billy started shedding the physical softness of boyhood and becoming more of man. Billy felt wounded and had an emotional collapse. He had to be sent off to boarding school and then finally fell out of a window on New Year’s Eve.
To me this is one of the most painful moments in my book, because Rockwell just glosses over it in his autobiography. He didn’t want to think about Billy’s death. He really did not want to be held accountable for anyone else’s problems—not his wife’s, his models’, or his children’s. That’s the least attractive aspect of him, but of course, not unusual for a major artist who saves the best part of himself for his work and doesn’t have a lot of energy to expend on other people. Many artists are hugely self-absorbed, but what’s unusual is that Rockwell painted a world that is the opposite of despair and self-absorption. He wasn’t Mark Rothko painting moody black clouds or Jackson Pollock spewing out his emotions on a canvas. He was painting a very sunny place. And so the public had an impression of him, or at least of his persona, that was utterly untrue.
Someone once told me they were talking with Rockwell about a guest that had just left the house, and Rockwell said, “Did you notice that purple vein in his nose?” If you had a purple vein in your nose, he’d see it.
Guernica: Norman Rockwell died quietly in his sleep, alone, at age eighty-four. After describing his well-attended but seemingly impersonal funeral, you write that in the end, Rockwell’s great theme was “the possibility that Americans might pause for a few seconds and notice each other.”
Deborah Solomon: Yes. That’s why I opened Rockwell’s childhood chapter with a scene in which no one is looking at him. He once described the moment: he’s about ten years old, sitting on the landing outside his apartment. And his father comes home from work, walks right past him, and looks at his mother with his eyes filled with “watery understanding.” His mother is lying on the couch, she’s always complaining, she’s a hypochondriac. And no one looks at Norman. He’s outside the apartment, outside this circle of warmth. He spent a lot of his life trying to get people to look at him. He loved being on TV. He was an exhibitionist, a performer. He got all of America to look at his work.
And in his work, in exchange, he returned the nation’s gaze. He looked as carefully as it is possible to look at the human figure. Especially at faces. He loved painting faces. Someone once told me they were talking with Rockwell about a guest that had just left the house, and Rockwell said, “Did you notice that purple vein in his nose?” If you had a purple vein in your nose, he’d see it.
Such power of observation, as Rockwell had, tends to be underrated as a fundamental feature of art. I mean, art is supposedly about seeing. Remember? Seeing! But the ability to observe and describe the physical world was devalued by the advent of modernism. Abstract painting shifted the emphasis from exteriority to interiority.
Guernica: Why is it that Rockwell is so malleable? Why is he able to be appropriated by different ideologies—especially right-wing politics?
Deborah Solomon: I would say he was misunderstood in his lifetime because he was associated with The Saturday Evening Post, which was a conservative publication. Its editorial page always took the side of big business and opposed any social welfare programs, including the New Deal. Rockwell did not share the Post’s politics—he was fairly apolitical for most of his career—but was tainted by association. Although he is sometimes held up as a defender of “family values,” he painted very few families in reality. For instance, of his 323 Post covers, only three portrayed a conventional family with parents and two or more children. To me, his work demonstrates how easy it is to opt out of the model nuclear family and find pleasure in alternate attachments.
Guernica: Is there a risk that knowing about Rockwell’s anxieties and quirks, his imperfect existence, “is to undo the power of the ‘Rockwellian’ spell,” as Ben Davis, reviewing the book in Slate, put it?
Deborah Solomon: Of course not. Judged in terms of his personal suffering, he is right up there with the best artists! And to know that is to look at his pictures more carefully. I think he was emotionally invested in his work and was able to perform the double duty in his art of expressing something about America and expressing something about himself.
Guernica: What do you make of the sale of Rockwell’s iconic painting “Saying Grace,” which recently went for $46 million at Sotheby’s?
Deborah Solomon: The art market is a critic of sorts, issuing endorsements and dismissals. I am glad to see that Rockwell is commanding the same insane prices as artists like Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe and the other stars of American art.
Guernica: How would Rockwell react to his own revisionist history? His acclaim, today?
Deborah Solomon: I suspect Rockwell would distrust it as much as he tended to distrust any compliments that came his way. But one hopes that he’d take a little hedonistic pleasure in the news, despite all the suggestions that he did not find pleasure in much, that he was anhedonic. He always said that his favorite painting was his next one, the one he had not started.
Guernica: For much of the writing of American Mirror, you were also doing the weekly “Questions For” column in The New York Times Magazine, in which you interviewed numerous cultural and political leaders. How did those two projects coexist?
Deborah Solomon: Other writers certainly complain about going back and forth between journalism and a book. The only good thing about it is that when you’re sick of one you can retreat into the other. When you’re tired of being a deadline-rattled journalist, you can retreat into the slowness of a book, and when you feel your book is the height of irrelevance you can return to the excitement of the daily news. But otherwise I don’t think they complement one another at all, and it’s better to choose one or the other.
Guernica: There was some controversy around the manner and extent to which you edited your interviews for the “Questions For” column.
Deborah Solomon: I had to edit each column down to about six hundred words. It was extreme editing, where you just cut and cut and cut until there’s nothing left. Until you’re down to the bone. I never took the criticism personally, because I was trying to tell a story in six hundred words, and that requires compression. Sometimes you have to reverse the order of questions. At the time, I was very surprised that my detractors found it surprising that my interviews were heavily edited. What interview isn’t? But now every Q&A in the New York Times has a “condensed and edited” disclaimer at the bottom. I mean, all interviews are condensed and edited. One hopes they are! You don’t want to waste the time of your readers by leaving in every “like” and “you know” and other filler.
Guernica: What is next for you?
Deborah Solomon: I recently joined WNYC Radio as an art critic and that has been enormous fun. It allows me to root for my favorite art shows without having to pick up a pen and agonize over sentences and paragraphs. I hope to start another book soon, but soon is a relative term.