Commentary Magazine

Outing Norman Rockwell

What kind of artist was Norman Rockwell? Not until his later years does anyone seem to have asked that question other than in passing. It was taken for granted, even by Rockwell, that he was an illustrator—a painter whose canvases were commissioned by magazine editors and advertising agencies for purely commercial purposes.

Might he also have been something more? Rockwell did believe the fruits of his labor were worthy of serious critical consideration: “I say that if you can tell a story in a picture and if a reasonable number of people like your work, it is art.” The art establishment, however, disagreed. His immensely popular America-themed narrative paintings, 323 of which were commissioned by the Saturday Evening Post and shown on its cover from 1916 to 1963, were almost never seen in museums or sold in galleries. His name has become shorthand for a special kind of American kitsch.

Rockwell’s technical skill was acknowledged to be formidable, but his subject matter was perceived on the left as culturally and (by extension) politically conservative—even though Rockwell was himself a liberal. Robert Hughes, for instance, saw him as a purveyor of “consoling fictions…relentlessly sentimental icons of midcult virtue—family, kids, dogs and chickens, apple pie, Main Street and the flag.”

His advocates on the right have been no less preoccupied with the implications of his chosen subjects. Paul Johnson, who argues that he has “some claim to be considered the finest American artist of the 20th century,” stakes that claim in part on the narrative content of his Saturday Evening Post covers: “He portrayed an America which was democratic, freedom-loving, egalitarian, enterprising, and dynamic, which was sure of itself and its aims, and believed in its destiny.”

As a matter of style and presentation, Rockwell was a representational painter at a time when the only critically acceptable painting was abstract, and he worked for middlebrow publications; the combination of the two made him almost comically unfashionable. But he came to be seen in a different light with the emergence in the 60s of the pop-art movement—Andy Warhol claimed to be a fan of his—and postmodern art critics and scholars have since embraced him enthusiastically. One, Dave Hickey, went so far as to write an essay about him for Vanity Fair called “America’s Vermeer.” In 2001, a touring retrospective called “Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People” came to the Guggenheim Museum. It was only the second time that a New York museum had shown his paintings, and Robert Rosenblum, then the Guggenheim’s curator of 20th-century art, proclaimed the exhibition to be “something that has real freshness for new art. There is a whole generation of really hip young artists who are plugged into Rockwell.” At long last, Norman Rockwell was in.

Whether wholehearted or ironic, the Rockwell revival continues apace. In November, “Saying Grace,” one of the best known of his Post covers, was sold to an anonymous bidder for $46 million, the highest price ever paid at auction for an American painting. Around the same time, Deborah Solomon, who has written biographies of Joseph Cornell and Jackson Pollock, published American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 493 pages), a biography that attracted widespread attention in the media when it was attacked by members of the artist’s family who had previously cooperated with Solomon.

The source of their anger is Solomon’s suggestion that Rockwell, who married three times and fathered three children by his second wife, was a latent homosexual who was sexually attracted to the boys who modeled for his paintings. Granted, she also states that he is not known to have “had sex with men” or behaved toward his models “in a way that was inappropriate for its time.” Nevertheless, Solomon makes clear her belief that Rockwell harbored repressed “homoerotic desires,” and her book returns repeatedly to that theme.

Solomon is not the first biographer to have noticed that Rockwell, whose oldest son described him as “always nervous about sex,” mostly preferred the company of men to women, or that a few of his paintings contain idealized imagery that can be interpreted as hinting (however tenuously) at homosexual attraction. But Laura Claridge, his previous biographer, stated specifically in her 2001 book that “there is no hint of such attachments in his own relationships” and discounted the possibility that his work contained gay symbolism, either conscious or unconscious.

On what new evidence, then, does Solomon base her claim? None whatsoever, if the word evidence has any meaning at all. That Rockwell was sexually inhibited as a young man is self-evident, as was the cause of his inhibition: shy, physically unprepossessing and ungifted at sports, he seems, like many such men, to have questioned his masculinity, at least for a time. Not surprisingly, he was drawn to “he-man” types who, unlike him, were naturally attractive to women, and he occasionally gave verbal expression to his admiration in fulsome ways more typical of his time (he was born in 1894) than ours. In addition, he relished the company of his teenage models, and a 1920 magazine profile quoted by Solomon describes Rockwell and a 16-year-old boy who posed for him as behaving “like two kids—talking, laughing, taking a swat at each other as the occasion offered.”

But anyone who sees this as proof that Rockwell was sexually interested in men or boys need only compare him with the composer Benjamin Britten, who is known to have been sexually attracted to pubescent boys. At no time did Rockwell turn out a painting remotely similar in tone to, say, Death in Venice, Britten’s 1973 operatic version of Thomas Mann’s novella about a writer who cannot come to terms with his romantic feelings for a beautiful young boy. Nor were Rockwell’s relationships with his models obviously equivocal, as opposed to Britten’s numerous emotionally charged friendships with adolescent boys, at least one of whom he approached sexually (though he is not thought to have had sex with any of them).

Rockwell, by contrast, seems to have been nothing more than a man who matured slowly and, finding himself initially ill at ease with adults, preferred for a time the company of boys. He soon outgrew that preference, and Solomon, unable to prove her point in any other way, is forced to resort to heavy-handed interpretations of his later behavior. Witness, for instance, a story told by Eddie Locke, the model for “Before the Shot,” the 1958 Post cover in which a child drops his trousers so that his doctor can give him an injection:

One night, Rockwell surprised the boy’s family by stopping by their house unannounced. He was carrying the finished painting and apparently needed to do a bit more research. “He asked for the pants,” Locke recalled years later. “This is what my parents told me. He asked for the pants to see if he had gotten the color right. They’re kind of a grey-green.” It’s an unsettling anecdote. Once again we are made to wonder whether Rockwell’s complicated interest in the depiction of preadolescent boys was shadowed by pedophilic impulses.

No less implausible are Solomon’s “close readings” of Rockwell’s paintings, in which she reveals an obsession with sex reminiscent of the quaintest excesses of old-fashioned Freudian psychobiography. It is hard to keep from laughing out loud when she describes the central figure in “Freedom of Speech” (1942), a casually dressed working-class New England man who is speaking at a town meeting, as “swarthily handsome…unattached and sexually available, unbuttoned and unzipped.”

Most unintentionally comic of all is her interpretation of “Girl at Mirror,” a 1954 Post cover in which a 12-year-old girl looks wistfully at herself in a mirror while holding a magazine in her lap that is opened to a portrait of the Hollywood actress Jane Russell: “Her toy doll, dressed in layers of ruffles and tossed on the floor, is a bizarrely sexualized object…With her right hand buried in her petticoats, the doll could almost be masturbating.” If you can believe that, you can believe anything.

It is not necessary to gin up a gay Norman Rockwell to make him trendy. That job has already been done by his postmodern admirers, whose appreciation for his paintings, stripped of its polysyllabic veneer, is best summed up by these lines from Stephen Sondheim’s Follies: “First you’re another/Sloe-eyed vamp,/Then someone’s mother,/Then you’re camp.”

Such benighted creatures are no more able to “see” Rockwell’s paintings for what they are than is Solomon, for whom they are partly a concatenation of sexual symbols in need of decoding and partly (as the title of her book indicates) a catalogue raisonné of all-American iconography. Yet she is correct to focus on the narrative content of the paintings, since it was central to the appeal and effect of his artistry—and since most of it originated with him alone.

Rockwell’s Post covers contained no text, nor did they refer to any particular story or stories inside the magazine. They were, rather, freestanding visual anecdotes, single-frame pictures that tell a tale invented by the artist himself. The results often suggest a cross between a cartoon and a short story, one in which extreme, often exaggerated realism (Rockwell used posed photographs to create his paintings) is enlisted in the service of making the implied narrative clear. And while many of the Post covers are humorous, they are rarely only that. “If it’s just a complete gag, it doesn’t stay with people at all,” Rockwell explained. “You have to have a little pathos in it.” Small wonder that “Breaking Home Ties” (1954), in which he portrays an eager young man and his melancholy, weatherbeaten father sitting together on the running board of a battered truck, waiting for a train that will take the boy away to college and adulthood, was successfully used as the basis for a cloying 1987 TV movie of the same name.

Yet “Breaking Home Ties,” for all its sentimentality, is also a painting of considerable emotional power, one that deserves to be taken at least as seriously as the work of the lesser 17th-century Dutch genre painters whom Rockwell unabashedly admired and emulated. And once in a while he produced a painting whose virtues need no apology of any kind. A case in point is “Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” the 1950 Post cover in which we see a trio of amateur musicians playing together after hours in the back room of a small-town shop. Here there is no cartoonish exaggeration of detail or over-explicit anecdotage, merely a poignant scene that is allowed to speak for itself and does so with simple, understated eloquence.

Norman Rockwell was no Vermeer. But Deborah Solomon is correct, as were others before her, to compare the creator of “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” to Pieter de Hooch, the genre painter whom he most closely resembles, though she spoils the comparison by mounting her favorite hobbyhorse: “A barbershop is, among other things, a site of licensed physical contact between men, a place where men touch other men.” Nor is it necessary to exaggerate his merits in order to appreciate Rockwell for what he was, a minor master who on occasion overcame his own narrow limitations of temperament and painted important pictures that succeed in saying something beautiful and true about American life.

About the Author

Terry Teachout, Commentary’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, has written four biographies and a biographical play, Satchmo at the Waldorf.

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