Authors: Laura Claridge
Frontispiece: Norman Rockwell and his beloved Packard, late 1920s
For my parents,
Mary Wilson Powell and William Harney Powell (1922–1973)
For my parents-in-law,
Fay Friedman Oppenheimer and Samuel Leon Oppenheimer (1924–1999)
What is truly revolutionary is the secret signal of what is to come that speaks from the gesture of the child.
ABOU BEN ADHEM
(Norman Rockwell’s favorite poem, recited at his funeral)
Abou Ben Adhem, may his tribe increase!
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:—
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
“What writest thou?”—The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, “The names of those who love the Lord.”
“And is mine one?” said Abou. “Nay, not so,”
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still; and said, “I pray thee then,
“Write me as one that loves his fellow men.”
The angel wrote and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.
Introduction and Acknowledgments
Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.
A confession, since such is the stuff of biographies: I began this project keenly interested in the cultural history encompassed by Norman Rockwell’s life and career but equally unsure if spending years on the illustrator himself would sustain my interest. I needn’t have worried: this major-league player of twentieth-century America stepped up to the plate deftly, deflecting my fastballs, my curves, my sliders—sometimes obvious in his moves, more often wily. To my surprise and chagrin, I ended up falling half in love with my subject—and then dumping him in disgust the next day. A fickle romantic, I nonetheless decided that it was not my fault, this confusion, but Norman Rockwell who thwarted constancy instead. No wonder he kept me spinning. No wonder that he kept me coming back.
And therein lies a major theme that emerges from the near century of Rockwell’s life: he was a master at creating desire in others. Highly intelligent man that he was, he early on figured out the basic economy that would keep people coming back for more: he had to withhold something while he appeared to give in excess. Mastery of this dynamic allowed him to remain an intensely private person even as his extraordinary celebrity spawned the illusion that he shared himself completely and intimately with his public.
Norman Rockwell, illustrator, was no different from most artists fully focused on their talent, and this meant putting his art ahead of his family. In fact, he often appropriated the emotional marrow of his relationships with his three wives and three sons (from his second marriage) in order to feed an audience always clamoring for more. As far as many Americans were concerned, however, Norman Rockwell exemplified the country’s heartland; he was its “everyman.” It is true that Rockwell did not seek deliberately to counter such an image; still, he also did nothing to hide the far more dramatic texture of his domestic life. He spoke openly and surprisingly often about his private demons. Probably to his detriment, his gentle self-revelation developed into a means of unconsciously manipulating others into taking care of him; and the important truth of his chronic depression went untended until he was an old man.
But I came to this biography through Norman Rockwell’s work, not his life. It was the summer of 1995, and my husband and I took our two youngest children to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Adjacent to the memorabilia exhibit was a small room of sports paintings, where I drifted somewhat aimlessly, my interest in representations of all things athletic long exceeded. Suddenly I was riveted by a canvas whose saturated color and fine draftsmanship were put to truly democratic use: the painting gently and lovingly mocked the seriousness with which baseball was regarded. Aggressively strong horizontal and vertical lines, the depth of field imaginatively multiplied by three parallel planes on which separate actions were taking place—who could this be? Glancing at the artist’s name, I was shocked:
Calling the Game,
by Norman Rockwell.
was Norman Rockwell? Growing up, I’d heard of Rockwell mostly through magazine pages touting the Famous Artists’ School, and I’d seen his work reproduced on countless calendars and ceramic plates. I had no idea that he possessed the technique and painterly sophistication to render such an oil—ignorance on my part that, I quickly discovered, typified the attitude of many of my generation.
Now in front of me was a painting with colors that were bracingly clean, the palette fastidiously chosen. Its intelligent negotiation of figure and space as well as the consummate painterly qualities bespoke values prior to those of Modernism. I was flummoxed, to risk a Rockwellian locution.
Back home, involved in completing a biography of a different sort of figural painter, I found myself sneaking breaks from my current project to take peeks at Rockwell’s complete portfolio. From Internet forays to purchases at the local bookstore to interlibrary loan requests for out-of-print books, a catalogue of this man’s life’s work began to take shape in my mind. The size of his output alone—more than four thousand pieces—was dizzying, but even more impressive was his diversity of illustrative styles. Early sketches in
were broad, loosely painted; and years later, after decades of not using this technique, he could still invoke it at will. During that same initial stage of his career, his work frequently seemed indebted to the fashionable illustrations that depended on romanticized yet sinewy, elegant, often two-dimensional figures. Within a few years, however, Rockwell had mastered a brushstroke of such control that the oil seemed to tighten on the canvas as you looked at it—at times, too much—and he exploited this talent in pursuit of the one last, perfect detail that would make his painting great.
I knew within months of that day in Cooperstown that opinion was not only wildly mixed on the proper way to appreciate Norman Rockwell but that, more surprising to me yet, the art world had been reacting in just this way since the beginning. I had expected to find a reception history that lauded his work until, say, the early fifties, when Abstract Expressionism had left little room even in the popular imagination for domestic painters such as Rockwell. Instead, the same arguments still raging today served as the backdrop to many articles on the artist in the 1920s. Is illustration worthy of comparison to fine art? Are such categories viable anyway? Is subject matter, formal execution, or historical innovation most important? Was it just his sentimentality, or was there more that kept Norman Rockwell from canonical status in the modern art world? The battles currently being waged over Rockwell in newspapers and journals began almost at the inception of his career, as surprising as that seems in light of the mythology of his Arcadian past, before modern art supposedly snubbed him out of existence. In truth, Rockwell began working at the height, not in the aftermath, of America’s education in Modernism; he attended the landmark 1913 New York Armory Show, an exhibition of more than sixteen hundred pieces of modern painting and sculpture, while in art school in Manhattan.
A few professional voices, such as the
critic Paul Richard, reminded me that they’d been on the record decades ago as appreciating Rockwell’s talent, when such praise incurred the contempt of other journalists. And Ferdinand Protzman, Richard’s colleague at the
recalled how he’d admired Rockwell since his early adulthood spent in Italy, where the Europeans taught him to understand Rockwell’s particular mastery.
Equally significant, there have been notable artists who voiced their genuine appreciation of Rockwell’s painterly talent before such an assessment was even remotely fashionable. But when John Updike and Tom Wolfe added their praise of Rockwell to that of the abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning, the social realist Ben Shahn, and the pop artist Andy Warhol, the celebrity supporters tended to be dismissed as eccentric exceptions among the cognoscenti. Their judgments were, for the most part, tolerated as their right—they had earned the ability to hold the aberrant opinion. Later, when Steven Spielberg explained that without Rockwell he couldn’t have produced his cinematic view of life, there was no great gasp, no shock of recognition. Indeed, Rockwell’s own productions assimilated all too easily the charge of sentimentality leveled against the filmmaker.
And yet: the times, they are a-changin’. When I started hearing from my artist stepson in Berkeley that it was cool to “get” Rockwell, and when my lazy Saturday wanderings in Manhattan and Washington galleries produced enthusiastic assays by young comers to the effect that they not only
Rockwell, they felt themselves influenced by his attention to form and color in the name of a story—well, then I began to believe that the art world had belched forth a new template. I had actually become optimistic about the resurgence of figural painting in 1988, when Alex Katz won wide acclaim for his show at the Brooklyn Museum (where Rockwell had received his first major retrospective): maybe the heralding of this artist who had traveled his own idiosyncratic, noncategorical way for so many years meant that audiences were going to be offered a more capacious palette from which to choose the pleasures they preferred.
I reflected upon such decade-old optimism while working in the Rockwell Museum archives at Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where I quizzed the energetic, deeply engaged Ph.D. students camping out beside me, following their own critical theses that centered upon Norman Rockwell’s art. One of their professors, art historian Robert Rosenblum, had reminded me that just as twentieth-century thinkers seriously revisited Victorian culture only when that era became remote enough to lack threat, so Rockwell had needed to fade in time before modern scholarship could risk immersion in his aura. These hip, intellectually engaged graduate-school scholars seemed proof positive of such a chronology of engagement.
No soothsayer, I don’t pretend to know what such changes portend. I read better the suggestions of actual experience—the fact that many of society’s best-educated people whose paths I cross in daily life had started sharing with me, almost defiantly (before the exhibition of 1999 made such admissions acceptable), that they had loved Rockwell
all these years.
Now they felt liberated to confess such allegiance to me without fear of censure. Patronized if they professed any serious admiration and delight, they had felt intimidated by that vague thing called institutional or critical opinion, what the knowing “they” thought and said. Indeed, this very need for “experts” to guide them in matters of aesthetics—the difficulty for many of enjoying, untutored, the abstraction of so much great twentieth-century art—had bred unfortunate suspicions about the art being touted. Too often, it seemed mandatory that to merit value, a painting had to be remote from the shared experiences most commonly the subject of narrative art. Though a longtime devotee of modern art, I agreed with such assessments: something is wrong when we reach a stage where art that does not require the mediation of a schooled critic lacks value because of its accessibility to the masses.
. . .
Energized by the tumult, I began to reconsider Norman Rockwell, both the impact that the man had on the twentieth century, and the value of his art. Unknown to me when I started, the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, had long been working on convincing prominent institutions across the country to support a major retrospective tour of Rockwell’s career. As a result of the unflagging efforts of museum director Laurie Norton Moffat and curators Maureen Hart-Hennessey, Anne Knutson (High Museum of Art), and Judy Larson (Art Museum of Western Virginia), Rockwell took front and center stage throughout much of 1999, with art critics scrambling to weigh in with their judgments of the illustrator’s place inside (or outside) their discipline. A few, such as Robert Rosenblum, Dave Hickey, Paul Richard, and, to some extent, Peter Schjeldahl and Arthur Danto—those who had long been on record as (unfashionably) respecting, beyond the acceptable limit, Rockwell’s work—repeated their thoughtful and sometimes qualified admiration, this time to a more interested audience. The middle ground was occupied by reviewers who praised the plurality of the current art scene, one that permits us to appreciate Rockwell’s technical skills while abjuring his sentimental (nonartistic) vision and values; others, like Deborah Solomon, went further, but in a different direction, celebrating in
The New York Times Magazine
that expanded room in the marketplace for the best of bad art, the triumph of kitsch—the Rockwellian cheeseburgers we sometimes prefer to a steady diet of haute cuisine. A few, Hilton Kramer among them, maintained their judgments that Rockwell was not art, and that there the matter should end.
We Americans have, it appears, mastered the lessons of Modernism. And after Modernism won the right to create its own traditions, the need to oppose anything that might chip at its defensive self-righteousness disappeared. Those battles over, the majority of us seem to believe that there is room for everyone at the table, at least temporarily, until the manners are judged, until the napkins are crumpled at the end of the meal, and the host decides who will be invited back.
Still, one might grumble that the Museum of Modern Art’s 1990–91 High & Low exhibit, touted as containing more than three hundred examples of art that confounded the old hierarchy, should have included a Rockwell or two. But though pages from children’s books and fan belts from Cadillacs greeted the eager spectators bent on seeing the new amalgams of culture, Rockwell didn’t fit in here, either. Neither high nor low, Rockwell’s proximity to either world made him a near miss in both. The demise of Marxism aside, the twentieth-century view that art should scrutinize a culture’s dominant values has basically held the day. Where was the salutary effect of Rockwell’s art, where was its attempt to defamiliarize the dominant culture, in order to make us see anew; where was the critique?