Norman Rockwell: His art, life and times
ANDREW McKEEVER Manchester Journal
MANCHESTER -- His images captured the essence of life in America, from small town to big city, the way most people liked to think of it. The scenes Norman Rockwell created, with painstaking attention to detail, are the America that lives in our imagination, at least when we think back to what may seem in retrospect the simpler, more innocent, pre-Internet era of the middle third of the 20th century.
Who needs Facebook, after all, when you have "The Gossips" -- the chain of folks sharing information that loops back to the original sender? And who can imagine the kindly village doctor, back when there were such things as doctors who maintained family practices, without reference to the one Rockwell portrayed checking on the pulse of a young girl’s doll? Or the Four Freedoms? Or Rosie the Riveter? Rockwell is probably best known for the 323 illustrations he created for the covers of the Saturday Evening Post between 1916 and 1963, a magazine which during its heyday could boast of having one of the largest paid circulations in the nation.
The fine art world may have been slow to embrace his work as "art," although that didn’t stop several well-known major artists -- Willem de Kooning and Andy Warhol among them -- from being fans and admirers. And clearly his stock has done nothing but rise over time. Earlier this month, one of Rockwell’s paintings, "Saying Grace," an image of a mother and a boy we assume to be her son saying a prayer at a train station -- fetched a record $46 million in an auction at Sotheby’s -- the highest sum ever paid for an individual work of American art. The previous record was $27.7 million, set in 1999.
Rockwell’s life and work has been chronicled and documented since his death in 1978, in part from his own auto-biography, as well as by other writers and reviewers.
A new book, "American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell," by Deborah Solomon, has now revisited Rockwell’s work, life and times, causing a measure of controversy of its own. Solomon will be coming to the Northshire Bookstore on Dec. 20 to discuss her book and sign copies.
Deborah Solomon is a writer who brings serious credentials to her task. She wrote a widely acclaimed biography of Jackson Pollock, the American abstract expressionist painter, and was for eight years a columnist for the New York Times "Questions For" column.
She has also written numerous pieces of art criticism for The Times and The Wall Street Journal.
Rockwell’s work is instantly distinctive and recognizable, but he wasn’t widely viewed as a serious artist before a groundbreaking show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 2001-2. That exhibit also triggered Solomon’s interest in writing about Rockwell, she said in a recent phone interview.
Rockwell had unusual and enormous powers of observation, she said.
"He’s telling a coherent story -- you know what he’s trying to say," she said. "All the elements come together beautifully and there is nothing extraneous. Every detail that is there contributes to the story."
In this case it’s the mastery that lies in the details. The big picture alone is interesting, both in terms of the idea being described the execution of it. But peer closely into Rockwell’s paintings and a remarkable level of detail emerges. Clearly legible newspaper headlines. The wealth of cowboy regalia in an ironic portrait of Gary Cooper. The flowers held by a movie starlet surrounded by news reporters. They were the result of his obsessive attention to the smallest elements of his work, captured by dozens of photographs shot for each painting, by fanatical cleaning of small paint brushes and a dedication to excellence in his craft that emerged very early while he was still in art school.
Rockwell spent some of his most productive and important years as an artist while living in nearby Arlington, where he moved to in 1938. Over the course of the next 15 years, until he relocated to Stockbridge, Mass. in large part to be near his wife, who was undergoing treatment for alcoholism and mental illness at a facility there -- and where Rockwell soon after underwent therapy himself -- he produced some of his best known canvases, such as The Four Freedoms, Shuffleton’s Barbershop, Rosie the Riveter, and the Tattoo Artist.
He used local residents for many of his models and it was here that he reached a peak as a painter/patriot, Solomon said.
"Moving to Arlington allowed him to shed the very costume heavy colonial phase of his earlier work," she said. "He got away from the familiar staples of patriotic imagery and brilliantly cast real people, his neighbors, into paintings."
But Rockwell’s internal personal life was not a sunny reflection of the often humorous, hopeful or comforting images he created on his canvases. He was married three times, and divorced twice. His first wife left him. His second, Mary Barstow, entered into a downward spiral fueled by alcohol and a sense, perhaps, that Rockwell was married first to his work, and at best secondly to her. They had three sons, but the portrait that emerges of Rockwell as husband and father is one of a distant man who had problems with intimacy, and was afflicted with anxiety, insecurity and depression. He was a hypochondriac, constantly worried about his health. Solomon hints that there may have been even more than that, suggesting there were "homoerotic" tendencies in some of his paintings and speculating at one point about whether or not he was homosexual.
She is careful to note, however, that there is no evidence that any secret desires he may have had went beyond that into action.
That piece of her book has aroused much fury from members of Rockwell’s surviving family, who released a statement last week that took vigorous objection with those suggestions. Other online commentators have weighed in as well around this issue.
Solomon said she was surprised by the reaction to that part of the book, noting it was a sliver of the overall body of her study of Rockwell. She spends the vast majority of its 493 pages focused on his art and technique, interspersing her narrative with short analyses of individual paintings he worked on as his story progresses which go into lucid detail. She had a cordial 12-year relationship with the Rockwell family as she researched and worked on the book, she said.
"To me, it’s not a book about Rockwell’s sexuality and I really try to make the case for his largeness as an artist," she said. "He was very mysterious. I basically found him very mysterious as a person, and the mystery deepened as I did my research."
Solomon has written a narrative that many readers who have any interest at all in Rockwell will find hard to put down. It connects quickly, tracing his family background, his life as a youngster in New York City and nearby suburbs, and is free of some of the denser prose that occasionally accompanies art criticism, without sacrificing depth.
Some of the most interesting segments dissect the tension between his view of himself as a commercial illustrator, who needed a deadline to finish a piece of art, while harboring some kind of fascination with the more rarified world of "fine art."
Deborah Solomon will be appearing at the Northshire Bookstore for a talk about her new book Friday, Dec. 20, at 7 p.m. For more information, visit the bookstore’s website at northshire.com or call 802-362-2200.
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